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Anderson County had enough gas to get to Bowling Green, but the Bearcats apparently got a fill up with regular when premium was needed Friday night.
Pulaski County saw to that. On a night when the Bearcats put forward a good, but not stellar effort, it simply was not enough. The Bearcats' engine knocked at inopportune times and Pulaski rallied from a 10-point deficit to end the Bearcats' season, 20-17, in the Class 5A state semifinals at Anderson's Hollie Warford Stadium.
Pulaski remained unbeaten and moves on to play Bowling Green in the state championship game. It is the first time Pulaski has ever advanced to the state football finals and the first time since the Kentucky High School Athletic Association expanded to six classes in 2007 that a team from Region 4 has made it to the championship game.
Anderson, which appeared to be in good shape for its second title game appearance in three years when the game entered the fourth quarter, finished at 11-3.
Simply put, Anderson felt it let a chance at playing one more week slip away.
“This game was the very epitome of not turning the ball over against a good team,” Anderson coach Mark Peach said.
Three turnovers were not the only culprits. There were missed tackles and dropped passes. There was a Pulaski interception and Anderson penalties at crucial times. Both teams fought to the end, but when Anderson faltered, Pulaski capitalized.
“We made so many mistakes,” Peach said. “It just boggles the mind. We had dropped passes, interceptions, fumbles, missed tackles, and incorrect techniques.
After stopping Pulaski's Christian Coots on a fake punt at the Pulaski 36 and leading 17-14 with only 4:26 to play, the Bearcats were unable to simply pick up a couple of first downs to run the clock out as they had against Conner two weeks before.
On the first play following the change of possession, Pulaski separated Anderson's Tristin Ashburn from the ball on a simple dive play. The Maroons recovered, then, with sophomore quarterback Riley Hall working magic through the drive, scored with 46.2 seconds to play when Hall connected with freshman Jake Johnson on a 1-yard pass.
Anderson's Dusty Puckett blocked the extra point, giving itself a chance to tie on a field goal, but after moving to the Pulaski 25 with 0.8 seconds showing on the clock, the Bearcats saw Joe Rose's 43-yard attempt – the longest of his career – fall short.
Twice in the game-winning march, Pulaski converted on fourth down, including the decisive pass. But the decisive conversion came on fourth-and-13 from the Anderson 29. At least three Bearcats appeared to have Hall hemmed in for a big loss that would have turned the ball over on downs. Somehow, Hall got away, then raced down the left sideline to the Anderson 9 before Puckett pushed him out of bounds.
Four plays later, Pulaski went ahead.
Twice in the decisive drive, penalties gave the Maroons a boost. First, on third-and-one at the Anderson 43, Anderson's Ryan Martin appeared to have Hall cornered. Hall tried to get rid of the ball but was called for intentional grounding.
Upfield and away from the ball, however, Anderson was called for defensive holding. Instead of Pulaski facing fourth-and-18, the penalties offset, giving the Maroons another chance at the 43. Aaron Smith got two yards on the carry, one of only two third down conversions by Pulaski.
Monday, Peach said that the holding call was correct.
On the very next play, Anderson was called for pass interference, moving the ball to the Bearcat 26.
While Anderson did not complain about the officiating – the yards penalized ended virtually even – the effect of the two calls was enormous.
Still, the Bearcats nearly forced an overtime, moving from their own 37 to the Pulaski 25 in 45.4 seconds as Zachary Carmichael completed five of six passes, the last one going to Puckett for a first down at the 25 with 2.3 seconds left.
Long out of timeouts, the Bearcats were able to spike the ball at the line of scrimmage to stop the clock with 0.8 seconds left. Rose, who had a career-long of 39 yards, was on target from the right hash mark but short.
Things should have never gotten to that point. Anderson got on the board with a 31-yard field goal from Rose on the second play of the second quarter, but after Pulaski had answered with Smith finding Hall from six yards out, the Bearcats appeared to begin asserting their will. Anderson marched 59 yards in 10 plays with Carmichael hitting Brayden Russell from three yards out to make it 10-7 with 27 seconds left in the first half.
After stopping Pulaski on the Maroon 15 to start the second half, the Bearcats went up 17-7 when Ross Cox found a big hole in the Pulaski line to score from two yards out. The score had been set up by Martin's 36-yard punt return to the Pulaski 12.
But even up 17-7, there were signs that the Bearcats' lead was not safe. A dropped pass had forced Anderson to settle for a field goal on its first score. A fumble at the Pulaski 35 stopped a promising drive early in the second quarter.
After stopping Pulaski on downs near midfield late in the third quarter, the Bearcats could not as much as get a first down.
In fact, the Anderson running game, which had gradually gotten stronger nearly every other time out this fall, mustered just 34 yards in the second half to finish with 94 on the game. It was Anderson's lowest rushing output of the season.
Anderson's defense held Pulaski, averaging better than 240 yards a game on the ground this year, to 125. Hall led Pulaski with 59 yards on the ground. He threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns, including a 46-yarder to Coots, who tiptoed along the right sideline to get Pulaski back in striking distance early in the fourth quarter.
“(Defensive coordinator Duane Hammons) had a great game plan,” Peach said. “But we put them in some tough spots because we were unable to move the ball offensively.”
As they wiped the tears of the broken dreams from their eyes and collected their thoughts, Anderson's players had to believe they should be practicing for one more game this week. But there will come a time when they remember district and regional championships. The seniors can remember being in three regional finals in four seasons along with two appearances in the state semi-finals. Their 40 wins are the most ever for an Anderson class over four seasons.
“I told the kids I was proud of them,” Peach said. “I was very proud of their effort and this is only the second time in school history that Anderson County has come this far. We have a lot to be proud off and we have a lot of things we can celebrate at our banquet.
“I am not disappointed with our effort. I was tremendously proud of how hard the guys played. But obviously, if we take care of the ball, we win this ballgame.
“We were playing the day after Thanksgiving. This is what it is all about. You play for opportunities like this.”
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