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It was one of those nights where you couldn't just dig in.
“Everybody was just sliding around out there,” said Anderson County lineman and team captain Landon Searcy.
Holding on? Good luck on doing that on a football field that went from horrible to near-quagmire status as Anderson County and Franklin County slogged it out for a regional championship.
“You couldn't get a hold of him in the mud,” Anderson's Darius Harvey said about Franklin County's Chris Roberts, who rushed for 123 yards and four touchdowns. “He's so big and strong and he would just bounce off you.”
But somehow Anderson was able to hang on. The Bearcats twice came back from deficits, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 3:02 to play to defeat the Flyers, 31-28, for their second Class 5A, Region 3 championship in three years.
Hanging on? You betcha.
After Roberts had given the Flyers a 28-23 lead, Anderson had to drive just 40 yards, but took nine plays to regain the lead. Quarterback Zachary Carmichael did the honors, following a line surge to the end zone mud from two yards out.
Anderson had appeared to be in some trouble when on third-and-7 at the Franklin 22, a wide open Brayden Russell could not come up with a Carmichael pass that was a hair behind him. On fourth down, Carmichael connected with Ross Cox just outside the Franklin 10, setting up the game-winner.
It was symbolic of Cox's night. The senior, not wanting to walk off the field at Warford Stadium for the final time last week, ran for 201 yards, a career-best, and two touchdowns. Cox gave Anderson a quick lead, running 66 yards for a score on the game's first play.
Cox also caught four passes for 46 yards. While the receiving numbers were not spectacular, the fact that all four of Cox's receptions gave Anderson first downs. Two of them converted fourth downs and led to 11 Anderson points. Franklin defenders were hanging on Cox on all of his catches.
“You just know that Ross is going to give 110 percent every time he goes out,” Searcy said.
“Ross had a monster game for us,” Anderson coach Mark Peach said. “He has carried us at times all year.”
After Carmichael gave Anderson a 29-28 lead, he lofted a pass to the right sideline that Cox somehow brought down to make sure a field goal would not beat the Bearcats.
As it turned out, it didn't matter. Dusty Puckett, then Harvey, both intercepted passes inside the final three minutes to seal the victory. They were Franklin's only turnovers despite the horrid field conditions.
“We knew we were going to have to go out and play defense,” Cox said of the final three minutes.
Puckett hauled in Barrett Sanderson's bomb at the Bearcat 35 and returned it to Flyer territory with 2:43 to play.
Needing just two first downs to run the clock out, the Bearcats could only get one, stalling at the Franklin 22. On fourth down, Anderson argued that Cox had come up with another of his circus catches but to no avail.
Cox appeared to dive and have his hands under the ball inside the Franklin 5, but the official on the play disagreed.
Franklin still had 31 seconds to go 78 yards. With Roberts and speedster Lorenzo McCaskell, it could have been an eternity. But after an incompletion, Sanderson tried to set up a screen pass. Harvey, who had returned one for a touchdown earlier in the year, ended Franklin's hope of a miracle when he got his second pick of the year.
“I tipped it and was looking around for the ball,” Harvey said. “It just fell in my hands.”
That might have been the only thing that fell in the Bearcats' hands last week.
Despite beating Franklin, 35-21, five weeks before, the Bearcats came into the game as the slightest of underdogs, according to the computer polls. Even after Cox had put the Bearcats up just 15 seconds into the contest, the Flyers did not back down.
Roberts got Franklin on the board with a 48-yard run then, after an interception and return by Demarcus Kennedy put the Flyers at the Anderson 13, Roberts bulled in from two yards out.
“They are a great football team,” Peach said of the Flyers, who finished at 11-2. “They came out determined tonight but I was proud of how our guys hung in there.”
The Bearcats dodged another Franklin scoring threat, set up when Jhanny Rodriguez returned an interception 49 yards to the Anderson 31. The Flyers, however, turned the ball over on downs.
Anderson responded with Carmichael connecting with Puckett on a 71-yard scoring pass. Carmichael completed just 6-of-18 passes for 126 yards. He was intercepted three times.
Cox gave Anderson the lead at 20-14 when he sloshed through a gaping hole in the line from seven yards out. The score had been set up when Ian Chilton and Blake Trimble sacked Franklin punter Zack Durham, who had bobbled a snap at his own 7.
Anderson muffed the extra point when Laytart, the holder, could not come down with a high snap and threw, unsuccessfully, to the end zone.
Anderson withstood a Franklin drive to the Bearcat 1 to open the second half. Franklin had first and goal from the one but an illegal procedure and an incomplete pass sandwiched around Anderson's Tyler Puckett catching Roberts for a 12-yard loss forced Franklin to try a field goal.
Durham was wide right from 35 yards.
Anderson answered with Joe Rose capping a 75 yard drive with a 22-yard field goal that made it 23-14, but Franklin came back, setting up the dramatic final minutes.
“We knew there was a lot of football to be played,” Harvey said of being down 28-23. “We knew we had to keep working hard and keep chipping away.”
“We had been there before,” Laytart added. “When we played them the first time, we were down two touchdowns.”
But where Anderson had not been, until two years ago, was in the role of the regional champion. Now, the Bearcats have two in three seasons.
“It's awesome,” said Cox. “It is a great turnaround for our program. I remember when we were 1-9 and now we are one of the powerhouses.”
Some of the perennial powers might not agree with Cox. Not yet anyway.
But no one can deny the Bearcats simply hung on.
And they are regional champions.
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