PAINTSVILLE Not often does Johnson Central encounter an opponent who can move the football like it can. These Golden Eagles still haven't found anyone who can match them big play for big play.
Madisonville-North Hopkins racked up 410 yards against Johnson Central in the Class 4A semifinals on Friday night, but the Golden Eagles generated five takeaways and forced another turnover on downs deep in their own territory for a 52-14 victory at Eagle Field. That secured Johnson Central's fifth consecutive berth in the state title game.
A whopping 519 rushing yards didn't hurt either, led by 278 yards, two touchdowns and four 2-point conversions from Devin Johnson. Dylan Preston chipped in 115 yards and a score.
"They ran the football like a machine tonight," Maroons coach Jay Burgett said of the Golden Eagles. "We had some turnovers that were just costly, and penalties that were costly."
Preston and Johnson hooked up on perhaps the costliest one late in the first half. Madisonville-North Hopkins, trailing 29-7, drove to the Johnson Central 9-yard line before Hunter McCloud intercepted Maroons quarterback Hayden Reynolds. But the ball squirted free and back into Maroons possession, giving them a fresh set of downs at the Golden Eagles 11 with less than two minutes to go in the first half.
Two plays later, though, Preston knocked the ball free from Reynolds and Johnson cradled it.
"That was huge," Johnson Central coach Jim Matney said. "That might have been the game there."
Concurred Johnson: "That's a big momentum swing, keeping (Madisonville-North Hopkins) from getting that momentum and us going into halftime with the momentum. It really helped coming out the second half."
That's because the Maroons' quick-strike offense got the ball first in the third quarter and scored on the second play from scrimmage, when Marquise Parker ran under Reynolds' high-arcing throw and kept going for a 73-yard TD.
That got Madisonville-North Hopkins back within two possessions, and the Maroons forced Johnson Central into a fourth-and-1 situation from the Madisonville-North Hopkins 39.
The Golden Eagles converted it emphatically. With the Maroons stacked to stop a plunge, Ryley Preece instead dropped back and lofted the ball for Seth Dalton. He was roughed, but it didn't matter: the ball was gone, and so was Dalton, for a 39-yard touchdown.
"I saw him break open," Preece said. "I just gripped it and ripped it. That's kinda my philosophy as a quarterback."
Preece and Dalton took advantage of a shift in Madisonville-North Hopkins's defense.
"We'd played them Cover 3 a lot of the game," Burgett said, referencing a defense in which a safety is responsible for the deep middle of the field, "and it really wasn't helping us, so we pulled the plug, pulled the safety out, and we were supposed to read and react to those tight-end wings, and on a fourth-and-1, our outside linebacker jumped up to play outside run."
It was, rather, Johnson Central's only completion of the game. The Golden Eagles had gambled and won.
"I felt like the pass was there all game," Matney said. "It's probably crazy to call it on fourth-and-1, but I just felt like it was there."
Preston and Cody Rice added fourth-quarter scoring runs. Rice's 2-yard TD on a jet sweep -- his second score of the game to go along with 73 yards -- opened the margin required for a running clock with 3:08 to play.
"Our offensive and defensive line really imposed themselves," Matney said. "I felt like our backs ran incredibly hard, and I think a lot of games are won in the trenches."
The Maroons' Jeriah Hightower, Class 4A's No. 2 rusher in yards per game coming in, piled up 153 yards on 32 carries to become Madisonville-North Hopkins's single-season rushing yardage leader, according to Burgett.
Reynolds threw for 257 yards -- 145 of them to Parker and 70 to Deljuan Johnson. But that wasn't enough to overcome four interceptions -- two by freshman Mason Lawson, one by McCloud and one from Jake Cain, who knocked the ball from Parker's grasp late in the first quarter and came down clutching it.
Defensive back Grant Rice joined in the big-play milieu, knocking down a fourth-down pass at his own 1 to force a turnover on downs early in the fourth quarter.
Johnson uncorked a 67-yard run on the first play of Johnson Central's ensuing drive, and two plays later, Preston was in the end zone from 5 yards out to make it 43-14 with 7:32 to go. Johnson added two more to essentially end it.
"Those boys, they block for each other; they run hard," Preece said of his backfield mates. "Devin is virtually unstoppable. They just make my life easier. I know when we need to get a first down, they're always gonna provide for it."
Johnson Central meets Boyle County, a 31-14 winner later Friday over Louisville Central, in the state final next Saturday at Kroger Field.
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MADISONVILLE 0 7 7 0 -- 14
J. CENTRAL 21 8 8 15 -- 52
JC -- Ryley Preece 1 run (Jake Headley kick), 9:43
JC -- Devin Johnson 19 run (kick blocked), 2:49
JC -- Johnson 15 run (Johnson run), :34
MNH -- Marquise Parker 9 pass from Hayden Reynolds (Simen Lind kick), 6:54
JC -- Cody Rice 17 run (Johnson run), 2:48
MNH -- Parker 73 pass from Reynolds (Lind kick), 11:13
JC -- Seth Dalton 39 pass from Preece (Johnson run), 7:30
JC -- Dylan Preston 5 run (Johnson run), 7:32
JC -- Rice 2 run (Headley kick), 3:08
First Downs 21 23
Rushes-Yards 38-153 52-519
Comp-Att-Int 17-32-4 1-2-0
Passing Yards 257 39
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 2-2
Punts-Avg. 1-41.0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 8-88 6-50
Madisonville-North Hopkins rushing: Hightower 32-153, Reynolds 6-0.
Johnson Central rushing: Johnson 21-278, Preston 11-115, Rice 9-73, Lawson 5-49, Preece 3-6, McCloud 1-0, Team 2-(-2).
Madisonville-North Hopkins passing: Reynolds 17 of 32 for 257 yards, 4 interceptions.
Johnson Central passing: Preece 1 of 2 for 39 yards.
Madisonville-North Hopkins receiving: M. Parker 8-145, Johnson 4-70, Metheny 2-22, Grant 3-20.
Johnson Central receiving: Dalton 1-39.