ATHENS, Tenn. – Ooltewah dodged a high-caliber bullet Friday night at McMinn County’s Cherokee Stadium.
Junior quarterback Corbin Powers threw for 507 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two scores, but when his two-point conversion pass intended for Dre Hall in the end zone sailed high with 44 seconds left the Owls escaped with a 36-35 shootout victory and a share of the District 5-AAA regular-season championship.
“That was amazing,” said Ooltewah’s Mike Williams, who caught a touchdown pass, had another called back by one of 12 penalties against the Owls for 116 yards, blocked a punt and an extra-point attempt and snagged one of three interceptions thrown by Powers in a sterling defensive effort.
“We lost on the last play of a game last week, but we came out tonight and kept fighting and never gave up,” Williams said. “Our defense came up with some big plays.”
The nerve-wracking victory gives Ooltewah (8-2 overall) a 5-1 mark in district play, the same as Cleveland (7-3) and East Hamilton (8-2). The league’s tie-breaker rule gives Ooltewah the No. 1 spot, while East Hamilton falls in at No. 2 and Cleveland No. 3.
“At least that’s the way we understand it,” Owls coach Mac Bryan said.
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association will announce first-round matchups Saturday morning.
McMinn County coach Bo Cagle agreed with that scenario, but wasn’t too thrilled at how his Cherokees (4-6, 3-3) came out in the standings and postseason picture.
“We beat Bradley and our record is better than theirs (5-5, 2-4) and they’re going to the playoffs and we’re not. That’s just not fair.”
A year ago, McMinn County beat Bradley, 34-29, in the regular-season finale and had to face the Bears a week later in the opening round, winning that one 42-22. The Cherokees lost to Riverdale, 31-6, in round two.
The Cherokees, who won the two previous meetings with the Owls by a combined score of 66-50, played like a playoff team against the Owls before a good senior night crowd that was on the edge of it collective seat until the final play.
Powers was brilliant, showing Johnny Manziel-like scrambling ability on several occasions. He completed 26 of 46 passes for 507 yards and tossed touchdowns to Clay Bennett, Trevor Crisp and Dre Hall covering 75, 79 and 15 yards, respectively. He has now passed for 1,684 yards and 15 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
All three receivers went over 100 yards – Crisp 5 for 174, Hall 4 for 111 and Bennett 7 for 108. Bennett has 473 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on the season while Crisp stands at 332 yards and three scores and Hall 265 yards and two touchdowns.
Powers also scored twice on 1-yard sneaks, making him responsible for all five Cherokee touchdowns.
“It was my best game, but it wasn’t just me,” Powers said. “Our team went out there and did a lot of things right. My receivers were great, they ran good routes, caught the ball and that’s all I can ask of them. I overthrew that last pass it that’s all on me. When the game was on the line we just didn’t execute.”
Just moments earlier, Powers capped an 80-yard, 10-play do-or-die drive by hitting Hall in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown that pulled the Cherokees to within one point with 44 seconds left in the game.
Powers had passes of 22, 24 and 24 yards on the clutch drive. He started McMinn’s previous possession with completions of 14, 20 and 29 yards, but that one ended badly when punter Israel Brown’s kick hit a teammate in the back.
“He’s a tough kid,” Cagle said of Powers. “They dished out some hard licks on him and she showed how tough he is by staying out there. I don’t think we blocked (David Strickland) all night, but Corbin’s a gritty kid. He found receivers and make plays out of nothing a lot of times by just running around.”
McMinn County, which came into the game having won two in a row while battling to keep its playoff hopes alive, wasn’t playing for the tie on this night.
Cagle wanted the win. Period. No overtime.
On the last play, Powers drifted back and threw a fade to Hall, this time in the left corner, but the ball zipped over Hall’s head into the darkness.
The Owls, who were playing without star fullback Desmond Pittman due to what Bryan called a “school related issue,” could finally breathe. Two sources said Pittman had quit the team.
While Powers pummeled the Owls’ defense – the Cherokees ran 75 plays for 525 yards of total offense – Ooltewah came up with several outstanding defensive plays that turned the game in its favor.
On McMinn’s second play, Freeman undercut a route in the right flat and intercepted a Powers pass in the Cherokee end zone for a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, Freeman scooped up a D.J. Kimpson fumble at the McMinn 15 and darted, dashed, zigged and zagged past offensive players turned defenders for what proved to be the winning touchdown with 7:22 remaining.
“I just come out and try to make plays and tonight I made two really big plays,” Freeman said. “I’ve never done that before.”
Sylvester Tyson had the Owls’ other interception.
McMinn’s two second-quarter touchdowns were bombs – 75 yards to Bennett on a slant and 79 to Crisp – he caught the ball behind Ooltewah’s defense after Hall deflected the ball into the air.
“We slipped on the slant play and they got us for another big play on a tipped ball and sometimes that happens in football,” Bryan said.
Aside from the defensive touchdowns, the Owls scored in routine fashion while putting up 309 yards of offense.
Binder, who completed 23 of 41 for 195 yards, got the wild second quarter going with a 1-yard bull rush into the end zone. Binder, intercepted once, capped the quarter with a 5-yard slant to Williams in the end zone to tie the game at 21-all with 1:07 left in the first half.
Williams’ blocked punt gave the Owls good field position at McMinn’s 15. Four plays later Edward Hayes hit paydirt from 1 yard out to give Ooltewah a 28-21 advantage.
Powers’ second 1-yard sneak tied the game again with 10:34 left in the game.
Freeman’s clutch fumble return put the Cherokees in a big hole.
They almost climbed out.
“They just kept throwing the ball and moving down field,” Williams said. “We stayed positive and kept everybody motivated.”
Williams led the Owls -- ranked No. 5 in Class 5A by murphyfair.com -- with eight catches for 83 yards.
The two teams combined for 71 points, 10 touchdowns and 834 yards of offense in a game that lasted 3 hours, 8 minutes – none of it dull.
Now Ooltewah, which lost to Columbia Central, 31-14, in the 2012 Class 5A quarterfinals, can get ready for another trip to the postseason.
“We’ve got a good group of young men who play hard and we’ve got some playmakers that can make plays,” said Bryan, who left Austin Peay State University where he was co-offensive coordinator to take over the Owls’ program this season. “If we do the right things, don’t turn the ball over and stop ourselves – we had a lot of penalties tonight and that was frustrating – we’re a pretty good football team.”
Ooltewah 7 14 7 8 – 36
McMinn County 7 14 0 14 – 35
OOL – Rashaun Freeman interception in end zone (Laslo Toser kick), 5:14
MCM – Corbin Powers 1 run (Bubba Cooper kick), 2:01
OOL – Brody Binder 1 run (Toser kick), 8:51
MCM – Clay Bennett 75 pass from Corbin Powers (Israel Brown pass from Trevor Crisp), 8:21
MCM – Crisp 79 pass from Powers (kick blocked), 4:44
OOL – Mike Williams 5 pass from Binder (Toser kick), 1:07
OOL – Andrew Hayes 1 run (Toser kick), 9:04
MCM – Powers 1 run (Davis Hunter pass from Dre Hall), 10:34
OOL – Freeman 15 fumble return (Williams pass from Binder), 7:22
MCM – Hall 15 pass from Powers (pass failed), 44.0
First Downs 17 20
Rushes-Yards 26-114 29-18
Passing Yards 195 507
Total Yards 67-309 75-525
Com.-Att.-Int. 23-41-1 26-46-3
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 2-1
Punts.-Avg. 5-42.6 6-25.0
Penalties-Yds. 12-116 8-70
RUSHING — Ooltewah: Edward Hayes 12-39, Brody Binder 6-37, Omari Kendrick 4-25, Mike Williams, 2-16, Armon Bell 1-0, Team 1-minus 3; McMinn County: D.J. Kimpson 19-29, Corbin Powers 8-minus 3, Dre Hall 2-minus 8.
PASSING — Ooltewah: Binder 23-41-1-195; McMinn County: Powers 26-46-3-507.
RECEIVING — Ooltewah: Williams 8-83, Anthony Turner 5-51, Hayes 5-28, Cody Cramer 3-16, Hayden Bradley 2-17; McMinn County: Trevor Crisp 5-174, Hall 4-111, Clay Bennett, 7-108, Matt Derrickson 6-86, Dre Sanders 3-15, Kimpson 1-13.
TACKLES (UA-A) – Ooltewah: Adrian Hall 8-2 10, Hayes 6-2 8, David Strickland 5-2 7, Tyler Reid 5-2 7; McMinn County: Israel Brown 5-0 5, Hunter Davis 3-0 3, Derrickson 3-0 3, Raheem Ellison 3-0 3.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)