Defending District 5-AAA champion McMinn had a shaky two-point, third-quarter lead. Ooltewah wouldn’t go away.
Things changed in a hurry for the Cherokees.
Bubba Cooper kicked a 23-yard field goal, stretching the margin to 22-17.
On Ooltewah’s ensuing drive, the Owls faced a second-and-12 from their own 26.
Quarterback Brody Binder dropped back to pass, was hit by senior linebacker Aaron Kimpson as he released the ball and defensive back Dre Hall undercut the route to intercept the ball, returning it 40 yards for a touchdown with 8:00 left.
“That was a game-changer,” Hall said.
Oh, boy, was it ever.
Hall’s interception return made it a two-score game and the Cherokees (4-1, 2-0) went on to beat the Owls, 35-24, at James N. Monroe Stadium on Friday night.
It was McMinn County’s ninth straight district win dating to 2011 when the Cherokees went 7-0 to capture the regular-season title. McMinn County beat Rhea County, 33-7, two weeks ago for its first district win.
“This is huge,” Cherokees coach Bo Cagle said. “To be 2-0 going into our open week is huge for us. For Ooltewah to be 0-2 kills them. We knew they would come out here fighting to win this game and we had to come out and match that.”
Owls coach Shannon Williams agreed with Cagle that Hall’s interception was perhaps the most pivotal play in the game.
“Ultimately, that’s what broke the game open and made it a two-score game,” he said. “That needed to be a one-score game taking it toward the end. I’m not going to blame the loss on the kid who threw the interception. He’s just trying to make a play, but their kid made a good play. If we tackle a little better in the first half maybe it’s not like that.”
With its second straight win over the Owls, McMinn County now has a 19-7 advantage in the series. McMinn won the first 13 games against Ooltewah from 1985-99. Friday’s win was the first for McMinn at Ooltewah since 2002.
The loss was a crushing blow for the Owls (2-3, 0-2), who have dropped three in a row since beating Brainerd and East Hamilton to open the season.
“We can’t worry about (the district) right now,” Williams said. “We’ve lost three in a row. We’ve got to get ready for another opponent (East Ridge) and fix some things we seem to keep doing over and over. We can’t even worry about who we’re playing next week. If we don’t fix us it doesn’t matter.”
There was nothing wrong with McMinn County’s vaunted running attack on Friday.
Senior back Kelvin Wells rushed 19 times for 136 yards with touchdown runs of 1 and 29 yards. His backfield mate, junior Dre Sanders, added 120 yards on 20 carries, including a 10-yard run in the fourth quarter. Sanders also scored on a 16-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Corbin Powers.
“We’re the Dynamic Duo,” Sanders said. “Every week we want to run the ball and that’s what we did tonight.”
Wells now has 765 yards rushing in five games and Sanders 511 – they have combined for 12 touchdowns and together are averaging a whopping 7.2 yards per carry.
Talk about a balanced rushing attack. Wells has 89 carries and Sanders 88.
“It was very workmanlike tonight,” Cagle said of the Tribe’s ground assault. “Those guys were a little confused early, but they kept after it.”
Why the mystification?
“Ooltewah’s three-man front,” he said. “They bring people from different spots and cuts (by the backs) become different because the holes are different. It takes a little while for us to get it.”
McMinn County ran eight plays in the first quarter and had 45 rushing yards, 31 coming on Sanders’ run from the Cherokees’ 29 to the Owls 25. The Cherokees went on to cap that 71-yard, six-play drive with Wells’ 1-yard touchdown run for a 6-3 lead, doubling up on Laszlo Toser’s 37-yard field goal to give the Owls a 3-0 advantage in the first quarter.
The Owls came right back with a 71-yard, five-play march culminated by Brody Binder’s 42-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams. Toser’s extra point gave the Owls a 10-6 lead.
After an Ooltewah punt, McMinn County drove 47 yards for a score, Powers throwing 16 yards to Sanders for a 19-10 cushion.
Twice in the third quarter, the two teams traded turnovers on successive plays. The second time it occurred, Ooltewah’s Stuart Doss picked off a Powers pass and returned it untouched 42 yards for a touchdown that trimmed McMinn County’s lead to 19-17 with 6:51 left in the third quarter.
One play earlier, Binder found David Strickland on a 26-yard gainer, but the receiver fumbled –one of three bobbles for the Owls – and Aaron Kimpson recovered at the McMinn County 32.
On Ooltewah’s first play of the quarter, Desmond Pittman fumbled and McMinn County’s Austin Fairbacks recovered the ball. On the very next play, Wells fumbled and Ooltewah’s Alex Doss, Stuart’s twin brother, recovered it.
The back-to-back turnover thing also happened late in the second quarter, Sanders fumbled and Alex Doss smothered the ball, but the Owls’ Binder was intercepted on the next play.
“I hadn’t seen that before,” Cagle said. “How does that happen? You think you’ve got some momentum and it gets snatched away pretty fast because of a turnover in the other direction.”
The recurring, momentum-stealing plays behind them, the Cherokees and Owls settled down to settle the outcome of Friday’s game, which drew a good crowd to “The Nest.”
Cooper’s field goal gave the Cherokees a five-point cushion with 9:36 left in the game on a night Ooltewah honored members of the school’s first football team from 1956.
On a third-and-six play, Hall’s defensive play dealt the Owls a gut-shot.
“(The coaches) were telling me the whole night that play was coming,” Hall said. “They had run that play to the other side and we couldn’t stop it. They brought it to my side, I saw it and stopped it. I undercut the route and made the play – that’s my first interception – and the blocking helped me get to the end zone.”
Cagle said linebacker Aaron Kimpson deserved a lot of credit for Hall’s interception.
“Aaron put pressure on the quarterback and that was big,” Cagle said. “I was watching the play and their (receiver) was open. Dre came from behind the guy, caught him and undercut the route. But if Aaron doesn’t hit the quarterback, I think he hits the receiver and they’ve got a big play. It was awesome. Dre saw the end zone, fought for it and did a good job getting in there.
“That’s the first time since 2009 we had a pick-six, so we’re excited about that.”
Cagle said the Tribe’s defense played well all night and statistics prove his point.
The Owls had 216 yards of total offense, with 155 coming through the air. Binder was 11 of 30 and the ground game had 61 yards on 39 carries, a rather poor 1.6 yards per try.
McMinn County forced four turnovers – three fumbles and an interception.
“I feel like our defense was lights out the whole time,” Cagle said. “Defense has to be the turning point in all our games. We’ve got so many new faces on offense and we made mistakes all over the place. We have to have tough defense and that’s what we got tonight.”
With leading rusher T.J. Davis out, Desmond Pittman was called on 13 times and had 49 of the Owls’ 61 rushing yards.
While Binder threw for 155 yards, he rushed eight times for minus-30 yards. Binder was sacked five times – Aaron Kimpson got him three times.
Sanders’ 10-yard touchdown run with 5:38 left capped the Cherokees’ scoring and pushed the lead to 35-17.
Ooltewah drove 52 yards in 11 plays and Desmond Pittman scored from 4 yards out with just 24 seconds remaining.
McMinn County 0 19 0 16 – 35
Ooltewah 3 7 7 7 – 24
OOL –FG Laszlo Toser 37, 0:32.4
McM –Kelvin Wells 1 run (run failed), 10:58
OOL – Mike Williams 42 pass from Brody Binder (Toser kick), 8:37
McM – Wells 29 run (kick failed), 6:59
McM – Dre Sanders 16 pass from Corbin Powers (Bubba Cooper kick), 3:31
OOL– Stewart Doss 42 interception return (Toser kick), 6:51
McM – FG Cooper 23, 9:36
McM – Dre Hall 40 interception return (Cooper kick)
McM – Sanders 10 run (kick failed), 5:38
OOL – Desmond Pittman 4 run (Toser kick), 0:24
First Downs 17 14
Rushes-Yds. 46-247 39-61
Passing Yds. 61 155
Com.-Att.-Int. 6-13-1 11-30-1
Total Yds 308 216
Fumbles-Lost 3-2 4-3
Punts.-Avg. 5-35.4 7-30.7
Penalties-Yds. 3-34 7-80
RUSHING — McMinn County: Kelvin Wells 19-136, Dre Sanders 20-120, Caleb Selvege 2-1, Josh Brown 1-1, Team 1-minus 5, Corbin Powers 3-minus 6; Ooltewah: Desmond Pittman 13-49, Jon Hill 8-34, Phillip McClain 10-8, Brody Binder 8-minus 30.
PASSING — McMinn County: Corbin Powers 6-13-1 61; Ooltewah: Binder 11-30-1 155.
RECEIVING — McMinn County: Blake Powers 3-49, Sanders 2-14, Matt Derrickson 1-minus 2; Ooltewah: Mike Williams 4-79, Garrett Sealor 2-22, Alex Doss 2-18, Davis Strickland 1-27, Michael Ruebusch 1-11, Stewart Doss 1-minus 2.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)