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Anderson County was reeling. The Bearcats knew it. Cooper knew it.
Anyone in the stands at Hollie Warford Stadium or even just following the first round game of the state Class 5A football playoffs knew it, too.
Anderson, one of the favorites to head to Bowling Green for the state championship game, was looking at a 35-21 deficit with Cooper threatening to tack on another touchdown just before halftime. But one of the unfortunate breaks of the game started a chain reaction that resulted in the Bearcats surviving with a 45-35 win Friday night.
Anderson, now 9-2, advances to host Conner and highly-regarded quarterback Drew Barker Friday night. Cooper, last year's state runner-up, finished at 3-8.
But Cooper undoubtedly had to think of what might have been had quarterback Will Ludwig not gone out with a severely cut lip just 2:04 before halftime. Ludwig collided with several Anderson defenders after fumbling at the Bearcat 29. It appeared to be one of the freak things that happen during a game, but when Ludwig eventually walked off the field, few fans could have imagined that the senior would be stepping off for the final time.
Those on the field knew.
“I saw it. I knew he was going to have to go get some stitches,” said Anderson defensive end Landon Searcy, who was in on the play. “I was just hoping he was all right.”
“He was pretty cut up,” added Cooper coach Randy Borchers. “It was pretty deep cuts.”
Ludwig, who was a tight end when Cooper started its run to the final with a 48-0 romp past Anderson last year, had thrown for 262 yards and four touchdowns when he went down. Cooper netted just six yards of offense the rest of the way and the Bearcats dominated with a balanced attack over the final 24 minutes.
“I really didn’t know if he was out or not,” said Anderson's Ross Cox, who was back after missing a game with a thigh bruise. “You have to come out and play football anyway.”
“You hate to see a kid go down like that,” said Anderson coach Mark Peach, “but I was proud of how our kids stepped it up in the second half.”
With Cooper only a shell of the team it had been with Ludwig in control, the Bearcats pounced and devoured.
Dusty Puckett picked off backup quarterback Billy Prickett's first pass attempt and returned it 36 yards for a score just 59 seconds into the second half.
“When Puckett returned that interception, it gave us a quick score and it cut (the deficit) to seven,” Peach said. “That was a huge play.”
Puckett said he was reading Prickett’s eyes and when the ball caromed off the intended receiver, he happened to be in the right spot.
“When Dusty got that interception, everybody on the team was hyped,” added quarterback Zachary Carmichael.
Anderson went on to turn a fumble recovery from Tyler Puckett into a 31-yard field goal from Joe Rose to make it 35-31 late in the third quarter, then turned a pair of interceptions into the go-ahead and clinching touchdowns in the fourth stanza.
“The field goal was big because we were able to get points and keep putting more pressure on them,” Peach said.
But Anderson would not get the lead until a 21-yard pass from Carmichael to Ross Cox with only 5:53 to play capped an 83-yard scoring drive.
The go-ahead score had been set up when Prickett under-threw his receiver at the Bearcat 5. Sam Laytart got the pick, returning it to the 17. Anderson put together what might have been its most impressive drive since the Franklin County game three weeks earlier, taking 11 plays and nearly five minutes to score. The Bearcats did not pass until they neared midfield and twice in the drive, Anderson converted 3rd-and-1 situations when Carmichael simply tucked the ball and followed Darius Harvey and Landon Searcy on the left side of the line.
“We think that's a pretty good way to go,” Peach quipped.
“We came out and were able to get a couple of big plays and got the momentum,” Searcy said.
When the Bearcats, who had come into the game about a 10-14 point favorite in the computer polls, finally took the lead, it was simply a matter of running out the clock. Cooper had shown little offensive capability after Ludwig had gone down.
Neither Prickett nor Cory Fussinger, both of whom saw action under center, were able to mount any kind of an air attack and the Cooper ground game, which pounded Anderson for 286 yards a year ago, netted just five yards on 22 carries Friday.
Meanwhile Anderson put up 368 yards over 60 plays. The Anderson brain trust split the calls 60-40 run-pass.
But early, the Bearcats were reeling. Three times, Anderson found itself down by two touchdowns. “We were scrambling trying to figure out a way to win this football game,” Peach said.
For nearly 18 minutes, the only thing Bearcat fans had to cheer about was a 39-yard interception return for six by Brayden Russell.
Cooper had driven 84 yards with Ludwig hitting Aaron Morgan for a 21-yard scoring pass on the Jaguars' opening drive, then after Russell's theft, Cooper responded with a 67-yard drive for a score and then seemed to give the Bearcats a punch in the gut when the Jaguars blocked Joe Rose's punt for a touchdown.
It set off a wild seven minutes that saw 35 points scored. Anderson hit on bombs of 63 and 54 yards to Russell and Cox, while Cooper tallied on scoring passes to Richie Pauls (8 yards) and Fussinger (52 yards) to make it 35-21.
“We had been down 14 to Franklin County and came back,” Searcy noted.
“We knew we could come back if we took care of the ball,” Carmichael added.
“We had told the kids Cooper would not come in here intimidated,” Peach said. “They were state runner-up last year and even though they were 3-7, you look at who they have played, you knew they were not going to be intimidated.”
Anderson, however, overcame its own issues. Cox was not 100 percent, Carmichael was testing a hip and Huston Page was nursing a shoulder problem, both aggravated the week before at Collins. Chris Toomey, who had turned into a playmaker at the end of the season, dressed, but did not play after a shoulder injury.
“Our kids came through under some adversity,” Peach said. “Ryan Martin gave us some big runs. Brayden Russell had some big plays. Cox, Carmichael, Dusty Puckett. Our line did some good things. Joe Rose kicked a big field goal. It seemed like it was one person after another.”
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