LEXINGTON Nearly stymied at every turn, Johnson Central still found itself 3 yards from overtime in the Class 4A state championship game on Saturday night.
Golden Eagles stud running back Joe Jackson, whose ankle was banged up in the state semifinals to the degree coach Jim Matney said he thought Jackson might not play Saturday, had just run for the last five of his 112 yards, jutting just inside the left pylon to get Johnson Central within 14-12 of Franklin-Simpson with 57 seconds to play.
Coming out of a timeout, the Golden Eagles lined up to go for two. Quarterback Ryley Preece again pitched the ball to Jackson, who swept left behind blocking and headed for that pylon again, executing a play that had worked so well time and again Saturday.
Only this time, the Wildcats were waiting.
Jackson was tripped up and snowed under by Franklin-Simpson’s Chase Gooch and Connor Rogers for a loss of 2 on the two-point try. Johnson Central never got the ball back in a 14-12 setback at Kroger Field, their third loss in the last four years in the state finals.
The Golden Eagles had two touchdown returns called back, as well as a third long return play, due to penalties. Preece returned a first-quarter missed Franklin-Simpson field goal for a touchdown, as well as an interception 85 yards to the house as the second quarter expired.
Both were waved off — the kick return because of a called crackback block and the pick-six on a roughing-the-passer infraction.
“We just had some inopportune times to commit some penalties. That’s all I know to say,” Golden Eagles coach Jim Matney said. “I don’t know. I’ll have to look at ’em on film to know for sure.
“We’ve got a good team, but to overcome (two) touchdowns called back, that’s just probably more than anybody can overcome, unless you’re just loaded.”
Johnson Central also got to the Franklin-Simpson 10-yard line or deeper and came up empty on three occasions, on a missed field goal and two turnovers on downs. And the Golden Eagles lost a possession at the Wildcats’ 27 after fumbling at the end of a long run.
Despite all that, Johnson Central got the ball back down just 14-6 on its own 26 with 1:34 remaining.
Preece and Zach Russell promptly connected for 69 yards to the Franklin-Simpson 5, and one play later, Jackson polished off the quick-strike drive with his second touchdown of the evening.
The Wildcats took a timeout to prepare for the two-pointer. Franklin-Simpson coach Doug Preston correctly guessed what was coming.
“More or less, there’s two or three things they’re gonna do, and you just gotta be ready,” Preston said. “I made a couple of adjustments on the defensive front right there when they went for two, and that gave us a chance. I thought sweep was coming, but our guys just stepped it up and made plays.”
Matney took the blame for the play call — one Johnson Central had used to gain chunks of yardage at a time.
“I’ve been in that position 1,000 times, and I’ve pulled it out 999 times. I just didn’t pull it out there,” he said. “Honest to goodness, I have 50 plays for that, and we went with that toss sweep. I don’t know why we did it, honestly. We rode it just a little bit too much.”
After an illegal procedure penalty on the ensuing onside kick, the Golden Eagles went to a pop-up kickoff, which Franklin-Simpson’s Tre Bass fielded without incident.
Bass being in the right place at the right time was a recurring theme. He won title game MVP honors for the second straight year, rushing for 135 yards and both Wildcats (14-1) touchdowns, including an 88-yarder on a counter play in which the speedster was never challenged.
“Not a surprise, one bit whatsoever,” Preston said of Bass’ success. “One of the hardest workers and most talented kids I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached some pretty good ones. (He does) whatever we ask, including playing defense.”
Jackson and Bryce Tackett each rushed for 112 yards for the Golden Eagles (13-2). Jackson produced that yardage and both Golden Eagles touchdowns despite having been pulled down on his ankle on the play that gave Johnson Central a running clock in the state semifinals against Knox Central, Matney said.
“We thought we had lost him in the semis,” Matney said. “He gutted it out. Gave us everything he had tonight.”
Johnson Central’s coach, as he often does after big games, still paused to recognize what the hardscrabble Appalachian community has done in reaching four straight state title games, nearly choking up during postgame interviews.
“The obstacles that some of our players overcome to be on this field tonight would crush all of us, and so they’ve really done a great job,” he said. “I can’t say enough.”
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F-SIMPSON 7 0 7 0 — 14
J. CENTRAL 0 6 0 6 — 12
F-S — Tre Bass 88 run (Cole Hollingsworth kick), 5:00
JC — Joe Jackson 2 run (pass fails), 11:01
F-S — Bass 15 run (Hollingsworth kick), 4:02
JC — Jackson 5 run (run fails), :57
First Downs 11 14
Rushes-Yards 35-191 46-236
Comp-Att-Int 5-7-0 1-5-0
Passing Yards 56 69
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-1
Punts-Avg. 0-0 3-41.0
Penalties-Yards 7-57 8-95
Franklin-Simpson rushing: Bass 15-135, McKinney 16-66, Partinger 1-(-3), Team 3-(-7).
Johnson Central rushing: Tackett 9-112, Jackson 16-112, Johnson 8-22, Preece 8-9, Sartin-Slone 1-(-2), Preston 3-(-3), Team 1-(-14).
Franklin-Simpson passing: Richardson 5 of 7 for 56 yards.
Johnson Central passing: Preece 1 of 5 for 69 yards.
Franklin-Simpson receiving: Stutzman 1-38, Covington 3-18.
Johnson Central receiving: Russell 1-69.