CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Cleveland’s defensive end Kimsey Bell, one of 17 seniors honored at the Blue Raiders’ regular-season finale, wasn’t trying to pat Ooltewah quarterback Brody Binder on the back.
“I was trying to sack him,” Bell said. “And I almost did.”
Bell, a 6-foot, 205-pounder, pressured Binder into throwing an incomplete pass through the end zone on the game’s final play Friday night, a defensive play that helped secure the Blue Raiders’ 26-21 District 5-AAA victory at Benny Monroe Stadium.
Cleveland built a 20-7 halftime lead on the strength of a 17-point second quarter, but the Owls stormed back in the second half and put a scare into the Blue Raiders.
“It was worth six bucks (price of admission) wasn’t it?” Cleveland coach Ron Crawford cracked after the game. “It was a great football game. We had the ability to hang on there at the end by fighting hard and I’m proud of these seniors.
“They could have bailed on this program, but they decided to stick it out and stay with us.”
Cleveland improved to 7-3 overall and 5-1 in district play, clinching at least a share of the league title. The Blue Raiders can claim an outright championship if East Hamilton (7-2, 4-1) falls at Bradley Central next week. The Hurricanes lost at Rhea County, 27-24, on Friday.
The Owls have the same records as East Hamilton.
Ooltewah, ranked No. 2 in the latest murphyfair.com poll, plays at McMinn County next week in its finale. If Ooltewah and East Hamilton – the Hurricanes lost to Rhea County, 27-24, on Friday – both win they would also be 5-1 in the district.
Ooltewah beat East Hamilton, 28-26, on Sept. 20. East Hamilton defeated Cleveland, 21-20, on Oct. 4 and the Blue Raiders knocked off the Owls. Go figure.
Crawford wasn’t waiting around for tie-breakers and such.
“District champs,” he shouted to his jubilant team after the game and then broke into tears while hugging folks around the team huddle.
Cleveland was inspired as the kickoff approached because senior night occasions do that..
Ooltewah tried a little gamesmanship to stir up its players before the action began.
Star senior fullback Desmond Pittman, who had missed two games after suffering a knee injury against Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett, and highly touted sophomore middle linebacker Jeremiah Jackson were in street clothes when the Owls came on the field for pregame drills.
They headed back to the locker room before their teammates and came out in football garb and ready to play a few minutes later.
“We knew we were going to play,” said Pittman, who didn’t appear to be 100 percent healthy running the football. “We just wanted Cleveland to think we weren’t going to play.”
Pittman finished with 86 yards on 23 carries and scored touchdowns on runs of 8 and 3 yards.
Jackson, who has a bum ankle, posted eight solo tackles and one assist, but that didn’t stop the Blue Raiders from coming right at him to test that ankle.
The Owls trailed by 13 points at halftime after a dismal first 24 minutes – they had three turnovers and a busted play on fourth-and-goal from the Blue Raiders’ 1 that killed a scoring opportunity.
“Awful,” Owls coach Mac Bryan said of his team’s first-half performance. “But Cleveland had something to do with that. But we only snapped the ball 23 times the entire first half and had four bad things happen to us – three turnovers and that backfield stuff down on the goal line.”
It appeared that either Binder or Pittman went the wrong way in trying to make a handoff.
“Let’s just say it didn’t work,” Bryan said.
The Blue Raiders struck first in the third quarter by driving 35 yards in six plays with quarterback Austin Herink hitting D.J. Jones with a 4-yard touchdown pass to put the Owls down 26-7 with 2:52 left in the period.
That drive was set up when Jay McIntyre intercepted a pass that went off the hands of an Ooltewah receiver – the second time Cleveland picked off a Binder pass in that fashion. Michael Huff had the other one and also added a fumble recovery and forced fumble, accounting for three of the four Ooltewah turnovers.
Ooltewah answered that score with Pittman’s second touchdown that capped a 65-yard, eight-play drive and closed the gap to 26-14.
Following a 44-yard punt by Zack Lee, the Owls marched 68 yards in eight plays to score when Binder found Edward Hayes open the near the goal line and he zipped past Cleveland defenders into the end zone to finish off a 12-yard play drive with 8:25 left in the game.
Cleveland launched a time-consuming 51-yard drive that stalled at the Owls’ 17. Herink, who completed 18-of-25 passes for 212 yards, converted a third-and-6 with a 13-yard toss to Tyler Davis to keep the drive alive.
That same combination stunned Ooltewah when with a 95-yard scoring pass play that put Cleveland up, 10-3. Davis finished with five catches for 124 yards.
Herink missed on a third-and-10 pass intended for D.J. Jones and Oscar Gavan missed a 35-yard field goal – his school record tying fourth attempt – with 2:45 left in the game.
Ooltewah needed a successful 80-yard drive to pull out a win.
On second-and-nine Binder connected with Anthony Turner on a 35-yard gainer to the Cleveland 30.
On third-and-four from the 24, Pittman gained five for a first down.
Binder found Hayden Bradley and Hayes open for gains of 7 and 5 yards. A short gain and facemask penalty on Cleveland moved the Owls to the Blue Raiders’ 4 with 21 seconds on the clock.
Wide receiver Mike Williams was flagged for a false start penalty.
On second down, Binder rolled to his right, looking for an open receiver in the end zone, but Bell had a bead on him.
“I got by the running back trying to block me,” Bell said. “I just ripped across him, got low and grabbed the quarterback’s jersey, but I have to tell you all that was a great team effort. It’s a great way to end my senior year right here.”
With Bell hanging on, Binder, who went 21-for-29 for 170 yards and the two picks, threw high and long past scrambling receivers in the end zone as the final seconds ticked off.
“We would have liked more time, but Cleveland did a nice job bleeding the clock down,” Bryan said. “We tried to stop that with timeouts. We had enough time to get down there, but it would have been nice to have two or three nice opportunities instead of having to fight the clock.”
Pittman scored on the Owls’ second play from scrimmage after Cleveland’s botched handoff exchange on its first snap.
Ooltewah went to pieces after that, though.
Herink, who had two of Cleveland’s four fumbles (it lost only one) and was sacked three times, directed a long drive that fizzled at the Owls’ 4 and Galvan salvaged it with a 22-yard field goal.
After the backfield foul-up between Binder and Pittman, Herink dropped back in his own end zone and rifled a perfect strike to the streaking Davis, who got behind the Owls’ secondary and raced to the end zone to give Cleveland a 10-7 lead.
Galvan kicked another 22-yard field goal to cap Cleveland’s next possession. The drive was set up when Cleveland recovered a “pooch” kick at the Ooltewah 40.
Cleveland forced a punt and Ooltewah’s Joey Sealor shanked a 14-yarder. The Blue Raiders went 36 yards in three plays, T.J. Parker scoring on a 27-yard jaunt to stretch the lead to 20-7.
“You get down a little bit when you see the scoreboard like that,” Jackson said. “That can also motivate you to get back in the game. After our slow start we came out in the second half and executed the things we didn’t in the first half.”
Said Pittman, “This kind of hurts. “We made too many turnovers early in the game. We have to come back next week and get ready for McMinn County.”
Ooltewah 7 0 7 7 – 21
Cleveland 3 17 6 0 – 26
OOL – Desmond Pittman 8 run (Laslo Toser kick), 11:40
CLE – FG Oscar Galvan 22, 5:09
CLE – Tyler Davis 95 pass from Austin Herink (Galvan kick), 10:43
CLE – FG Galvan 22, 5:45
CLE – T.J. Parker 28 run (Galvan kick), 1:32
CLE – D.J. Jones 3 pass from Herink (pass failed), 2:52
OOL – Pittman 3 run (Toser kick), 0:41
OOL – Edward Hayes 12 pass from Brody Binder (Toser kick), 8:25
First Downs 16 18
Rushes-Yards 32-154 41-127
Passing Yards 170 212
Total Yards 61-324 66-339
Com.-Att.-Int. 21-29-2 18-25-0
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 4-1
Punts.-Avg. 2-30.0 4-38.0
Penalties-Yds. 6-51 4-35
RUSHING — Ooltewah: Desmond Pittman 23-86, Edward Hayes 3-53, Brody Binder 4-15; Cleveland: T.J. Parker 19-86, Raekwon Bunion 9-24, Austin Herink 12-17, D.J. Jones 1-0.
PASSING — Ooltewah: Binder 21-29-2-170; Cleveland: Austin Herink 18-25-0-212.
RECEIVING — Ooltewah: Hayes 9-68, Hayden Bradley 4-26, Anthony Turner 3-41, Pittman 3-10, Mike Williams 2-25; Cleveland: Tyler Davis 5-124, Parker Smith 4-29, Jones 4-24, Eric Goodwin 4-23, Parker 1-12.
TACKLES (UA-A) – Ooltewah: Alonzo Blackwell 10-5 15, Jeremiah Jackson 8-1 9, Nick Putman 7-2 9; Quintin Slade 6-2 8; Cleveland: Darious Pillow 5-3 8, May McIntyre 7-0 7, Jonathan Terrero 4-3 7.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)