Russell waited until its season was on the line, but the entire offense finally clicked.
The Red Devils had 401 yards of total offense on their way to defeat Estill County, 49-21, in the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs on Friday night at Russell High School.
And while Russell got most of its yards on the ground (326), the big surprise came from the passing game. Sophomore quarterback Jacob McKee threw for 75 yards in an offense know mainly for running between the tackles.
“We probably threw the ball better tonight than we have all year,” Russell coach Ivan McGlone said. “We’ve been fairly successful running the ball throughout the year. If you can throw it a little bit, it always helps.”
McKee completed only four passes, but each pass would go on to set up a Red Devil rushing touchdown. The most impressive came on a 31-yard strike to Jackson McKnight late in the third quarter.
Junior running back Bronson Korzep, who finished the game with 116 yards rushing on 21 carries, had two touchdowns after long completions.
“I think that opened up the offense for us tonight,” Korzep said. “The line made some great blocks, opening up and giving him a pocket. And we went out there and just made plays.”
Korzep wasn’t the only 100-yard rusher for Russell as freshman Nick Conley ran for 137 yards and three touchdowns.
After struggling in the first half, Conley found running room in the second half, going for 103 yards. Most of the big gains came from running right up the middle.
“If you’re going to run it here, you’re going to have to run it in between the tackles,” McGlone laughed.
“We just have great lineman,” Korzep said. “Landon Arnold, Logan Suman, Jake Conley, Nathan Perry and Chris Massie are all just great linemen and they work their butts off every play. We’re thankful for them.”
At the beginning of the game it seemed like Russell would need every touchdown it could get.
On the opening drive, Estill County marched down the field and capped it off with a 27-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Jones to Chipper Hitchcock.
Jones was the main cog in the Engineers’ offense — he threw for 205 yards and ran for a team-high 86. He also had two touchdown passes.
“He’s better in person than he is on film,” Arnold said. “I didn’t expect that at all. He’s probably one of the best quarterbacks we played against.”
After the first scoring drive by Estill County, the Russell defense stepped up and forced two consecutive turnovers.
The first came when Arnold was able to get a hand on Jones, forcing and recovering a fumble. And while he caused the fumble, Arnold admitted there was a little luck to the play.
“He juked me, but I was able to reach in,” Arnold laughed. “He got me, but I was able to get a hand on the ball and fall on it. He got me, but I got him right back.”
Russell scored on the following drive. On the ensuing kickoff, a Patrick Soucy pooch kick was fumbled then recovered by Jacob Pennington.
The Red Devils scored on the drive following that turnover as well.
“Those were a big momentum-changer,” Arnold said. “They were able to get some deep passes on us and burn us a couple of times. But we were very resilient tonight.”
After allowing 14 points in the first half, the Russell defense allowed just one touchdown late in the fourth quarter when the game was in hand.
The defense also had closer tabs on Jones. After completeing 9 of 12 passes in the first half, the junior quarterback only completed 6 of 18 in the second half.
The biggest pass deflection came with the Engineers down by two touchdowns and on the Russell 7-yard line facing a fourth-and-goal.
Jones threw a strike to what seemed like an open receiver, but McKnight was able to dive and deflect the ball to force a turnover on downs. Russell then drove 93 yards to go up by three scores.
“We did what we had to do to stop him,” Korzep said. “Our coaches came in (at halftime) and toughened us up. They told us what to do, and we went out there and executed.”
With the win, Russell (7-4) moves on to the region semifinal at Bourbon County, which defeated Fleming County 41-0 on Friday night.
Bourbon County is one of three undefeated teams in Class 3A. But the Red Devils don’t really care about records this time of year.
“We’re a different team,” Korzep said. “Don’t expect anything from us, we’re a different team and we know what to do and we know how to win. Anyone we play has to be ready.”