Johnson Central coach Jim Matney called it the first true test of the season.
The high-flying Eagles passed with flying colors.
Johnson Central rushed for 323 yards to defeat Ashland 42-7 on Friday at Putnam Stadium. The win gives the Golden Eagles a second straight Class 4A district title and the seventh in the last eight years.
It also clinches home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs at least. Overall it was a good night for Matney and his team.
“I thought our players played really hard for four quarters,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve been tested this year and I thought the Ashland coaching staff did one of the best jobs against us that I have seen. The final score is not indicative of the game.”
On its first offensive possession, Johnson Central faced a fourth-and-six on its own 49-yard line and tried a fake punt but was stopped for no gain.
Ashland tried to capitalize, and saw Quinton Baker gain 15 yards on an option play. But the Johnson Central defense forced and recovered a fumble and then capitalized the following possession with a Jordan Young 15-yard touchdown run.
Coming into the game Ashland was averaging 290 yards of rushing offense. On Friday the Golden Eagles limited the Tomcats to just 154 yards on the ground.
“Johnson Central is a very good team,” Ashland coach Tony Love said. “They’re solid from top to bottom. We knew that’s why they’ve been scoring 55 points per game and shutting people down. Their defense is as good as their offense.
“To beat a good team, you have to make plays when you have opportunities.”
Baker was Ashland’s leading rusher with 99 yards on 27 carries. In comparison, Johnson Central, as a team, ran the ball 32 times.
After another touchdownpushed the lead to 14-0 at the start of the second quarter, Ashland started a drive that lasted 11:34 — keeping the ball away from high-powered Johnson Central.
On fourth-and-three from the three-yard line with three second left, Ashland quarterback Hunter Prince rolled out for a pass. It was broken up by a Johnson Central defender and the Tomcats remained scoreless.
“That was maybe the game,” Matney said. “I think our kids played steady the entire game, but stopping them before the half was just huge.”
Starting the third quarter, Johnson Central looked to move the ball through the air, but quarterback Zach Gound was intercepted by Ashland’s Miles McGranahan. That set up the Tomcats’ only score of the game — a Baker run from 30 yards out.
With momentum seeming to head toward Ashland’s side, Johnson Central quickly gained it back after Bryce Workman returned the ensuing kickoff 74 yards for another Golden Eagle touchdown.
“It was the huge play in the game,” Matney said. “We always tell our kids that in the big games, big players step up. We tell them they have to step up and play and you see what you’re made of in a big game. And I thought our kids did step up and play.”
Up 21-7, Johnson Central then let its trio of talented running backs take over. Daymion Belcher led the way with seven carries for 104 yards, while fullback Josh Dillon racked up 76 yards on nine carries.
But it was Young who kept finding himself in the end zonet. The senior halfback scored three TDs from 15, 7 and 38 yards out. He also totaled 100 yards on 10 carries.
“(Young) is just a force,” Matney said. “He is an incredible offensive and defensive player and is one of the best all-around players in the state of Kentucky in my mind. He’s just a factor.”
Johnson Central (9-0) will travel to Belfry next week, looking to go undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 2006. After the game Matney was quick to remind them that only two teams in school history have finished the regular season undefeated.
Ashland (7-3) is finished with its regular season, and will play at least one home playoff game in two weeks. Love now hopes his team can get relaxed and get ready before they hit the field again.
“I’m happy that our seniors get to come back and play at Putnam Stadium one last time,” Love said. “These kids have been on a grind for a while now. They need to heal up and let their minds rest and relax a little bit. I told them to be kids for a few days, but come back ready to work.”
KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658.