EVENSVILLE TN - After being bottled up for short gains all night, Kendall's 20th and final carry looked like it would be no different. He was met by a slew of Rhea County linebackers and rushers almost immediately after the handoff. But instead of going down on Rhea County’s cold artificial grass in the final seconds of Oak Ridge’s 23-0 shutout, Jackson made magic out of nothing.
He used his left arm to shove away one defender, took a few steps to his right, and then stiff-armed another.
Like a sailor navigating a storm, Jackson miraculously managed to wander into calm waters with plenty of blockers. The tailback accelerated down the sideline, followed his blockers, and put the finishing touches on a 22 yard touchdown and Oak Ridge’s Class 5A playoff win.
“They have a great football team in Rhea County, and they’re young and will be back,” said Oak Ridge coach Joe Gaddis. “But for us to shut them out speaks the world about our defense. And we did just enough on offense to win.”
Rhea County’s first play was predictive of their initial half, with a muffed exchange resulting in a lost fumble. However, Rhea showed the defense that spearheaded a sterling regular season, and held Oak Ridge to no points. Wildcat halfback Kendall Jackson was mostly held in check for the half, slamming away at nonexistent openings for a mere 14 yards on nine carries.
“That first turnover was big for morale until our offense squandered it away, and then our morale was down,” Oak Ridge coach Joe Gaddis said. “It was great for the first play, but we didn’t do anything with it.”
However, Rhea’s offense was lifeless, with the only explosive play coming when Dalton Hampton swept to the left from the wingback slot on their second possession. He scurried up the sideline and was only forced out after he had traipsed for 49 yards. But Oak Ridge’s defense had obviously done their homework, and was not fooled by Rhea’s elaborate traps and sweeps out of the Golden Eagles’ double-wing.
The Wildcats were hardly any better, but their one big play of the half was able to lead to points for Oak Ridge. Steady quarterback Mitchell Gibbons, who was an efficient 11-19 on the night, faked a handoff to Jackson, and then loaded up for a fluttering bomb down the right sideline. Even though Rhea County’s defensive back was in good position for a deflection or perhaps an interception, Stewart took the third option.
He “Moss’ed” the defensive back and made his best effort to get into the end zone. When Rhea County’s safety came over to make a tackle, Stewart stiff-armed him into the ground and went on his merry way. Only a last-second tackle stopped Stewart’s rampage at the three yard line. Jackson finished off the drive with a sprint around left tackle for a 6-0 lead.
Rhea County continued to be completely ineffective on offense, but the one bright spot in their otherwise dismal first half was receiver Jaylen Goodwin. Often standing alone on the perimeter, the physical flanker had four catches for 43 yards in the half, using his size to box-out smaller corners on slants and in-breaking routes.
But one man cannot do it all, and none of Rhea’s drives resulted in points. But Oak Ridge’s offense was nearly as impotent, and the score stood at a manageable 6-0 going into halftime. Serious adjustments would need to be made for that lead to hold fast against perhaps the best team in the Div. 5A football. And fortunately for the Wildcats, some deft deception was just the adjustment needed to break the game wide open.
Perhaps Rhea County’s most stellar performer was their punter Luke Miller. He pinned Oak Ridge inside their own 10 yard line several times, punting seven times for 253 yards. The first half was defined by these field-tilting bombs downfield, as the senior punter seemed to put the Wildcats in a bind anytime his own offense failed to move the ball.
“The problem in the first half was field position,” coach Gaddis said. “They had the one big play that changed the field, and every time we got the ball we were inside the ten yard line, and that limits what you can do. But in the second half, we had better field position and we were able to do what we wanted to do (with the play-action).”
Coach Gaddis’s star halfback may not have broken off any explosive runs in that first half, but his presence loomed large in the mind of Golden Eagle defenders. So after shaking off an early interception, the Wildcats used Jackson as a decoy on play-action passes. Jubrice Taylor romped downfield on a 45 yard catch and run down the right sideline after Rhea’s defensemen stunted toward the line of scrimmage to stop a supposed handoff. Jackson’s 18 yard run immediately after this created an insurmountable two-possession lead for the visiting team.
“They had more people in the box than we could block, and that’s why we came out and threw in the third quarter and loosen those guys up,” coach Gaddis said.
While Oak Ridge reversed their offensive woes, Rhea County remained mired in a sludge of two-yard runs and incomplete passes. After gashing the Wildcats for half-a-hundred on his first carry, his six subsequent totes netted Hampton only five yards. Ethan Davis did not carry the ball a single time as the Golden Eagles morphed into a punchless air-raid offense for the second half.
The Eagles netted 103 yards passing on a whopping 33 attempts, with several of those yards coming mostly off of creative runs after the catch by receiver Jadden Pankey after catching a short hook or flat route.
“I thought Ky Hirsch had a great game, without question, and out linebacker Jacob Berven played well tonight,” coach Gaddis said. “Our middle linebacker Brian Kelley played well tonight. Without watching film, it’s hard to say, but those three come to mind immediately.”
After a Effrin Rodriguez field goal made the score 16-0, Jackson punctuated the night with one last score, and the Wildcats advanced to the third round of the playoffs. But even though his team was dominant in most phases of the game, coach Gaddis said his team will need to cut down on penalties (11/121 yards on the night) and turnovers (the one interception) if they are to be crowned state champions.
“There were too many penalties tonight, period. You can’t beat Knoxville West with those kinds of penalties,” coach Gaddis said. “If we continue to play good defense, our offense has to step it up if we’re going to continue to play football this season.”
OAK RIDGE 0 0 0 0 – 0
RHEA COUNTY 6 0 7 10 – 23
OR 0:37 Kendall Jackson 3yd run
OR 9:46 Kendall Jackson 18yd run
OR 10:22 Effrin Rodriguez 22yd FG
OR 6:56 Kendall Jackson 22yd run
OR STATS RC
32-103 Rush 23-51
251 Pass 104
354 Total 155
11-19-251 Passes 11-19-104
OAK RIDGE: Kendall Jackson 20-79-3, Jubris Taylor 5-15, Preston Turner 1-2, Mitchell Gibbons 2-2, Brandon Heyward 1-16, Jaylen Heyward 1-(-6)
RHEA COUNTY: Dalton Hampton 7-54, Ethan Davis 6-5, Ryan Young 00-000-0, Kaleb Martin 8-(-14), Ryan Young 2-9
OAK RIDGE: Mitchell Gibbons 11-19-1 251 yards
RHEA COUNTY: Kaleb Martin 14-33-1 103 yards
OAK RIDGE: Johnathan Stewart 2-88, Jubrice Taylor 3-70, Jaylen Heyward 3-31, Brandon Heyward 2-40, Nicolas Adams 1-20
RHEA COUNTY: Jayden Goodwin 6-60, , Jadden Pankey 6-44, Dalton Hampton 1-5, Caleb Odell 1(-5)