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Anderson County simply willed its way to a win Friday night.
The Bearcats, obviously struggling following a week when football had almost been pushed aside by a decision to change the post-game prayer ritual that had been standard since 2005, somehow found the way to outlast South Oldham 35-20 in a game much closer than the final score would indicate.
Down 7-0 late in the first half, the Bearcats scored on what looked to be a broken play, then took the lead two minutes later on an improbable touchdown from someone who had not scored since his youth league days.
Then the Bearcats put things away with a spectacular defensive play from a first-year starter and one of the longest scoring runs in Anderson history.
“We had played so poorly for the first half,” Anderson coach Mark Peach said. “We just kept working hard and plugging there. We played better in the second half and finally put it away.”
There was little doubt that Anderson was struggling as it neared halftime trailing 7-0.
Facing a second-and-25 situation at the South Oldham 42, Anderson quarterback Zachary Carmichael scrambled before finding a lonesome Ross Cox over the middle. Cox outraced several South Oldham defenders for the touchdown capping an 11-play, 90-yard drive.
Two plays earlier, Cox had been flagged for offensive pass interference in the end zone.
“We had so many miscues,” Peach said. “Just so many things. We had a receiver run the wrong route. We weren't reading the right coverage. We miss a block. We snapped the ball on the wrong count. The list goes on and on. It was really collectively.”
That was the case until just over two minutes later when senior defensive end Darius Harvey picked off a screen pass from South Oldham's Chase Lightfoot, then rumbled 48 yards for the improbable touchdown.
“That was my first touchdown since rec league,” Harvey said.
“Darius read it correctly the whole way,” Peach said. “We work on that. We talk about reading screens. Not only did Darius catch the football, but he turned on the juice to go ahead and score like that.”
Along the way, Harvey outran Anderson defensive coordinator Duane Hammons, who was racing along the sidelines.
“I didn't see him,” Harvey smiled. “I was looking straight ahead.”
Nearly everyone else saw the long-time defensive coordinator race well past the team box that ends at the 25 and celebrate the momentum-changing play.
“On occasion, I have seen Duane run fast, but that might have taken the cake,” Peach laughed.
South Oldham had dominated much of the first half, scoring less than four minutes in when Lightfoot connected with David Culbertson on a 64-yard touchdown pass. Anderson's high-powered attack had sputtered through the first quarter without a first down.
“They had been playing well and hit us with a couple of big plays,” said Anderson lineman Landon Searcy.
But even though Peach and his staff had repeated the “No excuses” mantra over the course of the week, the brouhaha that accompanied the decision to change the prayer ritual had obviously taken its toll.
“It was a big distraction, but the coaches told us we are still going to have to play,” said senior captain Tristin Ashburn.
“I was distracted personally,” added Carmichael.
But somehow the Bearcats found a way to put things behind them.
After South tied things on Lightfoot's one-yard plunge with 3:50 left in the third quarter, Anderson methodically marched 67 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Chris Toomey bulled to paydirt from a yard out and Joe Rose tacked on the extra point to make it 21-14.
But after South Oldham roared back with a four-play, 65-yard drive – Lightfoot and Culbertson connected again for a score – the Bearcats got the break they needed when Dragon kicker Drew Koch pushed the extra point wide left.
“That was a huge momentum-changer,” Peach said, “but we don't take plays off. I know the kid missed the extra point, but we were bringing pressure and hurried him.”
Anderson owned the final 9:53.
Carmichael and Dusty Puckett connected for a 7-yard score to punctuate the 10-play, 72-yard march, but Carmichael had completed big passes to Brayden Russell (26 yards) and Toomey, who weaved his way for 16 yards to the South Oldham 28 on a third-and-9 situation.
Cox also broke off a 24-yard run during the drive.
South, however, responded, driving to the Anderson 10 with 1:41 left on the clock. But on fourth-and-6, Russell stopped Starr Thompson, who had taken a pass from Lightfoot, three yards shy of the first down.
Two plays later, Ryan Martin took Carmichael's pitch and raced around left end for a 93-yard scoring run. Martin's run was six yards short of Brian Stivers' school record, set in 1990, but is believed to be the longest Anderson run since that time.
“We beat a quality opponent tonight,” Peach said. “I have utmost respect for Coach (Jamie) Reed. They had a fantastic game plan.
“Technically, they were district champion last year and they have some athletes. Coach Reed is coaching them at a very high leel. I was proud of our staff, how at halftime, we made the adjustments on offense, defense and kicking game.
“Our kids, in turn, gave us a great effort in trying to execute all that.”
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