When star running back Desmond Pittman went down, the Ooltewah Owls didn’t fall flat.
Pittman, who went into the game with 918 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, sustained a “tweaked” left knee on the last play of the first quarter and watched the rest of the game from the sideline.
The state-ranked Owls (5-1) picked up the slack offensively, turned in an eye-popping, rock-ribbed defensive effort and pulled out a 10-3 non-league high school victory over Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett before an estimated 3,000 fans at James N. Monroe Stadium on Friday night.
“The kids came to play and made some really big plays when we needed them,” Ooltewah defensive coordinator Doug Greene said. “The ends and linebackers were very active and we tackled well.”
The Owls were tough in clutch situations.
Defensive back Mike Williams intercepted a Josh Holt pass at the Owls’ 1 with 1:45 left in the third quarter, killing one Indians threat.
After the Owls’ Andrew Hayes muffed a punt at the Dobyns-Bennett 48, the Indians drove to the Ooltewah 2 where they faced a fourth-and-two.
The Owls’ Nick Putman crushed Indians running back Landon Salyers for no gain: ball goes over to the Owls with 5:03 left in the game.
Dobyns-Bennett (3-3) forced an Ooltewah punt and Joey Sealor got off a 19-yarder, setting up the Indians at the Owls’ 28.
Dobyns-Bennett isn’t a chump change outfit.
The Indians have been playing football since 1921 and have the all-time winningest program in the state with 752 victories, and that ranks 19th nationally. The Indians have won seven state championships – the last in 1964 – and current coach Graham Clark has taken them to the playoffs in each of his 20 previous seasons, including three semifinal appearances.
Dobyns-Bennett has produced such football standouts as College Hall of Famer Bobby Dodd, seven players that went on to play in the National Football League – that list includes Gerald and Coty Sensabaugh, and Nick Sensabaugh is on the current squad – and a college All-American that eventually played baseball with the New York Yankees.
And, just for the record, the Dobyns-Bennett boys basketball and baseball programs are the all-time winningest prep teams in America with 2,145 and 1,429 victories, respectively.
So, Clark’s football team has some athletes. Yet, the Indians couldn’t crack the end zone on Friday.
After the short punt, Blake Rodgers picked up 5 yards on first down.
Quarterback Skylar East was stuffed for no gain. East hit Caleb Cook on a 4-yard pass to set up fourth-and-one from the Ooltewah 19.
After another Indians timeout saved an illegal substitution penalty, the Owls’ Jeremiah Jackson and Tyler Reid sandwiched Cook for a 2-yard loss with 1:22 left in the game.
Ooltewah ran the clock out for the hard-earned win.
“Their front seven was pretty dang good,” Clark said, “and we were bouncing off them like a tin can. We had chances to make plays but that front seven kept coming up with awesome plays. That No. 5 (Jackson) is a man. Whoa! He should be in one of those Aqua Velva commercials. I don’t think we blocked him much all night.”
Ooltewah’s defense held the Indians to 185 yards of total offense, just 70 on the ground.
“I thought our defense was outstanding,” Owls coach Mac Bryan said. “The goal-line stand was critical and the fourth-down stop ended the game. You just can’t enough about how well those guys played, and I mean the entire defense.”
The Owls had 321 yards of offense on 62 snaps, with quarterback Brody Binder completing 15 of 27 passes for 205 yards, with one interception and the go-ahead touchdown toss to Williams in the third quarter.
Neither team could reach the end zone in the first half, which ended in a 3-3 tie after field goals by the Owls’ Laslo Toser of 27 yards and a 32-yarder by Landon Salyers for the Indians. Toser’s kick capped a 76-yard drive that stalled at the Dobyns-Bennett 10.
The Owls were driving late in the first quarter when Pittman, one of the country’s top-ranked fullback prospects, gained 2 yards on second-and-14. After the play, the 240-pound bruiser of a back limped off the field.
“I planted my foot and somebody hit me when I did that,” Pittman said. “It hurt.”
When play continued on the field, Pittman was being examined by the Owls’ trainer, who then walked over and said something to Bryan.
Moments later, Pittman took off his shoulder pads. He came out after halftime in street clothes.
“I might be able to play next week (at home against District 5-AAA rival Bradley Central).” Pittman said.
Said Bryan, “We’ll see. Really, taking him out was more of a precaution than anything. My trainer said it was tweaked pretty good and that we ought to hold him out. I thought that was the wise thing to do.”
Pittman carried nine times for 59 yards in one quarter, giving him 977 yards through five games – he’s averaging 7.9 yards per carry – and within easy striking distance of his second straight 1,000-yard season.
With his friend sidelined, Williams thought it was time for him to kick it into another gear.
First, Williams turned in his offensive highlight on homecoming night – Taylor Massey was crowned homecoming queen.
The Indians turned the ball over on downs at the Ooltewah 25 with the game still tied 3-3.
Suddenly, the Owls found a running game in the person of junior Brandon Byrd, who rushed for 35 yards, including runs of 18 and 15 yards, in the 75-yard scoring drive. Byrd’s 2-yard gainer moved the Owls to the Dobyns-Bennett 25.
A false-start penalty moved the Owls back to the 30. On the next play, Binder hit Williams on a slant over the middle and the speedy wide receiver darted between two defenders and raced into the end zone for the touchdown. Toser added the extra point and Ooltewah had 10-3 lead with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter.
“I got a little emotional when Desmond got hurt and a couple tears dropped down my face,” Williams said. “I just knew it was my time to step up. Me and Brody knew what we had to do.”
Williams finished with nine catches for a game-high 137 yards – he outgained Dobyns-Bennett’s entire passing attack – and that pushes his season totals to 26 receptions for 331 yards and four touchdowns.
Less than 3 minutes after the touchdown catch, Williams got the interception in the shadow of the goal line that prevented the Indians from taking the lead.
“I saw the quarterback (Holt) scrambling and I kept back-pedaling,” he said. “I knew the receiver was behind me, the ball was underthrown and I just made the play. I got lucky a little bit.”
Greene added, “I put (Williams) in there because I thought they might try something like that. We changed the coverage up and got pressure on the quarterback.”
The Owls, ranked fourth in Class 5A by the murphyfair.com website, recorded three sacks for minus-26 yards, all by defensive tackle David Strickland.
Dobyns-Bennett’s defense, despite the Owls’ hurry-up offense that can be difficult to deal with, managed to hold the Owls to three first-half points and 10 in the game. Ooltewah came into Friday’s action averaging 43.2 points.
“In the first half they kept the football, but our defense kept them out of the zone,” Clark said. “We kept the ball in the second half and couldn’t put it in the zone. We’re about three plays from being 6-0 and one play from being 2-4. We just had a real hard time running the ball against those guys.”
Ooltewah was doing a lot of good things offensively except scoring in the first half. The Owls put up 217 yards of total offense on 41 snaps in the first two quarters, but had only three points to show for the effort.
The Indians had 71 yards of offense on 24 plays at halftime.
“We couldn’t make any plays down there (near the end zone) and that was frustrating,” Bryan said. “We have to fix that. We had two or three balls we didn’t catch that could have been big plays. In the second half, we couldn’t get any rhythm going; we got a little running going there at one point with Brandon, but the defense just played great all night. They made key stops when we needed them.
“Our front seven is a theme now. Last week they had a lot to do with that win (a 28-26 victory over rival East Hamilton).”
Dobyns-Bennett 0 3 0 0 – 3
Ooltewah 3 0 7 0 – 10
OOL – FG Laslo Toser 27, 6:50
KDB – FG Landon Salyers 32, 5:58
OOL – Mike Williams 32 pass from Brody Binder (Toser kick), 4:12
First Downs 10 15
Rushes-Yards 35-70 35-116
Passing Yards 115 205
Total Yards 54-185 62-321
Com.-Att.-Int. 10-19-1 15-27-1
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-1
Punts.-Avg. 5-35.0 2-21.5
Penalties-Yds. 4-30 7-59
RUSHING — Dobyns-Bennett: Josh Holt 9-32, Alijah Dunn 11-29, Landon Salyers 1-3, Colton Ketron 1-0, Caleb Cook 1-minus 3, Skylar East 5-minus 16; Ooltewah: Desmond Pittman 9-59, Brandon Byrd 15-59, Amari Kendrick 5-12, Team 3-minus 1, Brody Binder 3-minus 13.
PASSING — Dobyns-Bennett: East 9-12-0-98, Holt 1-7-1-17; Ooltewah: Binder 15-27-1-205.
RECEIVING — Dobyns-Bennett: D.J. Jones 5-70, Cook 2-13, Makale Foreman 1-15, Dunn 1-15, Jordon Jeffers 1-2; Ooltewah: Mike Williams 9-137, Edward Hayes 2-22, Anthony Turner 1-31, Cody Cramer 1-9, Pittman 1-6, Kendrick 1-0.
TACKLES (UA-A) – Dobyns-Bennett: Trey Trammell 7-2, Holt 5-1, Jacob Roller 5-0, Nick Sensabaugh 5-0, Blake Rogers 4-1, Palmer Begley 3-2; Ooltewah: Alonzo Blackwell 9-2, David Strickland 9-1, Jeremiah Jackson 6-1, Tyson Sylvester 6-0, Rashaun Freeman 4-1, Nick Putman 3-3, Edward Hayes 3-2, Tyler Reid 2-4.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)