LEXINGTON Tony Love saw Elizabethtown's offensive statistics, and he saw what the Panthers did on film.

That made an impression. But Ashland's coach put more stock in a different eye test: the one he sees in person five or six days a week.

"I sit down and I try to comfort myself a little bit," Love said, "by thinking, who has the best line on both sides of the ball? I thought we won that. Who has the best defense? I felt like we had that. Who has the best running game? I felt like we had that. And the last thing was, who has the three best football players on the field?"

Love then glanced to his right, where junior lineman Zane Christian was standing. And Tomcats senior speedsters Keontae Pittman and JT Garrett lingered on his left.

"And I think we had that," Love concluded.

Not to mention, the best team in Class 3A.

Pittman ran for 253 yards and three touchdowns and Ashland's top-ranked defense stymied Elizabethtown's high-flying attack for a 35-14 victory in the Class 3A state championship game.

The Tomcats capped their first undefeated season since 1958 and their first undefeated and untied campaign since 1942. They finished as state champions for the first time since 1990 with a dominating performance on both sides of the ball.

"That's the biggest thing our coaches preach, is just set the tone early," senior Hunter Gillum said. "We're trying to smack everybody in the mouth on the first play of the game and keep that same energy the whole time."

They succeeded.

"That was a classic Ashland football game today," Love said. "Downhill, ground-and-pound."

Christian was one-fifth of an offensive line that paved the way for 415 yards rushing. Gillum was another beneficiary: he rushed for 115 yards and two scores.

"(Opponents) probably are on film looking at (Pittman), knowing what's he's doing. He's having a heck of a year," Gillum said of the state coaches association's Class 3A Player of the Year. "That probably opened lanes for me, but our offensive line, they were opening up big holes today and it was helping all of us out."

It began with a clinical six-play, 58-yard drive that the Tomcats consumed chunk by chunk. Gillum capped it with an 8-yard scoring run, followed by the first of five extra points off SJ Lycans's foot.

Elizabethtown trotted out an offense that averaged 45.1 points per game -- until Saturday -- and got to the Ashland 9-yard line. But once there, the Panthers dropped the second of two would-be touchdown passes on that drive before going for it on fourth-and-4. Gillum's pass breakup forced a turnover on downs.

Ashland didn't score, but it did go 72 yards on 15 plays to consume 8:19 off the clock before losing a fumble in the red zone.

The Panthers saw a trend developing -- namely, the Tomcats' domination of the clock -- and elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 28 on the ensuing drive.

But Ashland senior linebacker Gage Layman came up to make the tackle for a loss of two yards, giving the Tomcats the ball in good position.

"We knew that they were a grind-it-out, control-the-clock kind of team," Elizabethtown coach Ross Brown said of Ashland. "I have confidence in my guys, and we're here at the state championship and we're not gonna play it safe now. Knowing what kind of battle it would be for the rest of the game, us getting the ball back from them, I thought we had to take our shot right there."

But it failed, and the Tomcats made Elizabethtown pay. Brett Mullins found Paul Humphrey to convert fourth-and-11, and three plays later, Pittman was in the end zone from a yard out with 4:39 to go in the first half.

The Panthers got the ball first in the third frame and once again assembled a drive into the Ashland red zone before stalling at the Tomcats 4. Elizabethtown went for it on fourth-and-3, but a bad shotgun snap sent things sideways and the Panthers dropped another pass.

"They dropped a couple balls. I'll give them credit on that, they had open receivers," Love said, "but ... our defense, they've been a bend-but-don't-break defense all year long. They've had their backs to the goal line. They pulled the offense out many times, and they just kept responding and making plays. It was an all-around team effort by those guys."

Ashland took over and went 96 yards in nine plays. Gillum provided the big blow, spinning and sprinting 62 yards to the Panthers 9. Pittman all but walked in for a 3-yard score with 5:30 to go in the third, extending the Tomcats' edge to three possessions.

Elizabethtown finally breached the goal line on its next possession, when quarterback Clay Games plunged in for a 1-yard TD. But Gillum got that one back from the same distance with 9:36 to go in the game, and the Panthers never got closer than two possessions the rest of the way.

"It definitely makes you feel like you have to score quicker," Games said of the pace of Ashland's offense, "which was a factor pretty much the whole game. With them possessing the ball a whole lot, I knew that it was important to capitalize on certain drives and we failed to do that."

Pittman provided the final capper. The Panthers finally scored through the air on Games's 7-yard TD to Camden Williams with 1:52 to go. But an Elizabethtown onside kick failed, and Pittman got loose 58 yards to the house with 1:41 remaining.

"Make no mistake about it, we didn't play defense well enough today," Brown said. "We didn't play offense well enough either, but we couldn't get them off the field."

Ashland (11-0) outgained Elizabethtown (12-1) 428 yards to 284. The Tomcats defense, while surrendering its first touchdown in 13 quarters of game time on Saturday, held the Panthers offense -- second in Class 3A in points per game -- 31 points and 135 yards below its season averages.

Ashland's defense came into Saturday's game allowing 4.5 points per game -- fewest in the state across all classes.

Pittman is bound for Army, with whom he recently committed, but he hopes Ashland won't have to wait 30 years for its next title.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world," Pittman said. "Just ready for the next team to come do it again next year."

(606) 326-2658 |

zklemme@dailyindependent.com

ASHLAND 7 7 7 14 -- 35

ELIZABETHTOWN 0 0 7 7 -- 14

FIRST QUARTER

A -- Hunter Gillum 8 run (SJ Lycans kick), 9:18

SECOND QUARTER

A -- Keontae Pittman 1 run (Lycans kick), 4:39

THIRD QUARTER

A -- Pittman 3 run (Lycans kick), 5:30

E -- Clay Games 1 run (Brandon Parsons kick), 2:16

FOURTH QUARTER

A -- Gillum 1 run (Lycans kick), 9:36

E -- Camden Williams 7 pass from Games (Parsons kick), 1:52

A -- Pittman 58 run (Lycans kick), 1:41

A E

First Downs 19 17

Rushes-Yards 55-415 20-84

Comp-Att-Int 2-4-0 18-37-0

Passing Yards 13 200

Fumbles-Lost 1-1 0-0

Punts-Avg. 2-35.0 2-27.0

Penalties-Yards 6-61 3-14

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

Ashland rushing: Pittman 32-253, Gillum 9-115, Garrett 7-42, Mullins 4-6, Tackett 3-(-1).

Elizabethtown rushing: McNeil 7-47, Ka. Sherrard 4-44, Durbin 1-4, Kh. Sherrard 4-4, Allen 1-1, Games 3-(-16).

Ashland passing: Mullins 2 of 2 for 13 yards, Garrett 0 of 2.

Elizabethtown passing: Games 18 of 37 for 200 yards.

Ashland receiving: Humphreys 1-13, Tackett 1-0.

Elizabethtown receiving: Williams 6-92, Ka. Sherrard 5-65, Murphy 4-34, Durbin 1-8, McNeil 1-3, Kh. Sherrard 1-(-2).

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