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It was so unexpected. So surprising. So game-changing.
Which, of course, made the turning point of Anderson County's 55-21 win over Mercer County last Friday seem so routine.
Clinging to a precarious 28-21 lead over their long-time rival, the Bearcats got the break they needed when Tristin Ashburn returned a fumble to the Mercer 4. One play later, Sam Laytart burst into the end zone to put the Bearcats up by two touchdowns with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
Game, set and bragging rights to the Bearcats.
“Does he not have a knack for that?” Anderson coach Mark Peach asked about Ashburn, who has returned two fumbles for touchdowns in his career. He had given the Bearcats the lead at Boyle County with a similar play the week before.
“Tristin has an uncanny ability to just find the football on both sides of the ball,” Peach said.
Mercer, which had dominated the third quarter, had stopped an otherwise impressive drive when they hit Laytart for a one-yard loss on fourth down at the Titan 16.
But Mercer's upset bid took a major blow on the play immediately preceding the key fumble. Braxton Bradshaw had gotten loose for a 17 yard pickup to the Mercer 44, but the Titans were flagged for holding.
“Tristin made a great play. He is always making plays like that,” Anderson quarterback Zachary Carmichael said.
“He has a way of doing that just about every game,” added Laytart.
But while Ashburn's play and Laytart's score undoubtedly formed Mercer's back-breaker, there could also be little doubt that the Bearcats ran their record to 3-2 with a team effort.
Laytart's first varsity touchdown – “It was about daggone time,” the senior laughed – ignited an explosion that saw the Bearcats score 27 points in 6:15, turning a close game into a rout. Anderson's final point total was the most since scoring 56 against Montgomery County in the 2011 state playoffs.
Anderson had not scored more points against Mercer since the Bearcats ripped Mercer 67-6. That Anderson team captured the program's first district championship, a feat the current team has designs on repeating.
The Anderson defense limited a previously explosive attack to 111 yards. According to statistics reported to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, Mercer had averaged 34 points and over 500 yards of offense through its first four outtings.
“Our defense was outstanding,” Peach said. “We were able to eventually take control of the game because our defense was so consistent.
“Also, I could not be more proud of our kicking game. Our coverage guys on the kickoff and punt were fantastic. (Mercer's Layne) Peavler scared me to death. He had had big returns against every team they have played.”
Peavler had returned two kicks for touchdowns in the Titans' first four games.
Friday, Mercer was plagued by six turnovers, four leading to Anderson scores.
Ironically, though, it was an Anderson turnover that had Mercer thinking it might be able to upset the Bearcats, who are ranked among the Top 10 in Class 5A by every major poll. Despite fumbling the opening kickoff, the Titans got a reprieve on the next play when Russell Sims swiped Carmichael's pass at the Mercer 13 and did not stop running until he had hit pay dirt 87 yards later.
Even though Anderson tied things when Chris Toomey capped an 18-yard drive set up by another fumble, then took total control in the second quarter when Carmichael scored on runs of 10 and 5 yards, it could have been more one-sided.
An unofficial count of open receivers dropping catchable passes reached five before halftime. Carmichael, however, was unfazed and quickly gave Mercer much of the credit.
“I thought Mercer did a pretty good job,” he said. “They made a few changes. Sometimes people just drop passes. It just happens.”
Two that weren't dropped went to senior Ross Cox.
A 65-yarder – Anderson's longest pass of the season – tied things again at 14 midway through the second quarter. Carmichael found Cox lonely on the left side before the senior was off to the races for the touchdown. Joe Rose's extra point knotted things at 14.
Mercer had scored when Bradshaw raced to the end zone untouched from 19 yards out to cap a 4-play, 70 yard drive.
Carmichael and Cox connected again, this time from 26 yards to make it 42-21 with 10:26 to play. Cox recovered after Mercer's Chris Cawley-Goodwin was unable to come up with an interception. Cox cradled the tipped ball, then turned to step into the end zone.
“Their cornerback made a play on the ball and just didn't come up with it,” Cox explained. “It just came right to me.”
Peach could only smile about the good fortune. “You know, football is a funny game,” he said. “They had scored on a tipped pass too. That pass was not even intended for the kid who caught it.”
Mercer's Chase Moore had pulled in a tipped pass with 4:50 left in the third quarter to pull the Titans within 28-21.
Anderson finished the scoring on an 11-yard run from Laytart and Huston Page's 30-yard fumble recovery. Mercer blocked the extra point after Page's score when a Titan raced untouched into the backfield to swat Rose's kick away. It was the first point after touchdown Rose had not been able to convert in two years.
Still, there was some concern after the Bearcats appeared ready to blow things open in the second quarter only to see Mercer briefly make a game of it.
“I think we were starting to lose focus,” Cox said. “We thought we were doing all right and lost focus.”
“I think we toned it down a little bit,” Laytart added.
But Peach was smiling as the Bearcats ended the pre-district portion of their schedule. “I was so proud of the kids,” he said. “They got down 7-0 but showed the kind of character and resiliency they have. They stuck with our plan.”
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