Big plays send Black Bears past North
LONDON — Harlan County got a head start in the district race with a 23-13 win at North Laurel on Thursday. The Black Bears used big plays for two scores and then held on with a late defensive stand.
“I have to give it up to my kids. They’ve hung in there. They started the season 1-4. They could have folded the tents,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said.
For the second straight week, North Laurel is left wondering what could have been with just a couple of plays keeping them from the win.
“What hurt us the most was turnovers, penalties and missed tackles. That will cost you every single game,” Larkey said.
The Black Bears only managed five first downs that were not via the penalty. Two of those came on the final drive. What they did manage was to score on plays of 78 and 48 yards.
“They’ve got a few guys over there we couldn’t deal with that are faster than anybody we have on our football team and probably anybody we play all year. If you miss a tackle they are going to score a touchdown and that’s what happened,” Larkey said.
Creech knows well the weapons he puts on the field.
“They are our playmakers. My game plan is to get it in their hands as much as possible and hope they can make a play in space,” Creech said.
North Laurel was moving the ball well on its first possession. It was all running plays as the Jaguars ripped off an average of 5.5 yards per carry. They played penalty free on the series and picked up two fourth downs. The drive ended when the ball was smacked out of Cole McWhorter’s hand on a 14-yard run.
Ethan Baird recovered for the Black Bears at their own 12-yard line. The drive lasted just three plays. The third play was a 78-yard run by Tyrese Simmons, who found a small hole in the middle and broke through like a sprinter.
“We got off to a rough start,’’ Larkey said.
The Jaguars were moving again on their second possession before another turnover stopped them on their own 36. This time in was a bobbled exchange that was pounced on by Harlan County’s Jacob Ward. A penalty on North Laurel scooted the ball up 5-yards. Even with the first-and-5, Harlan County was not able to move the ball. Marcus Kelly boomed a 45-yard field goal to make it a 10-0 game with 1:04 left in the first quarter.
North Laurel turned the ball over on downs. For the second week in a row, a fourth-down measurement was not favorable by a tissue-thin margin.
“It’s just who wants it the most. You have to go in there and get it. You’ve got to be able to get a yard or 2 yards,” Larkey said.
Harlan County gave the ball back on downs despite another big run from Simmons. Simmons broke a 28-yard run to top 100 yards on his first two carries. The drive stalled on the North Laurel 36.
There was only 2:34 in the half when North Laurel’s Matt Brooks lined up to punt from the 50-yard line. His punt was marked out of bounds at the 5. The Jaguars got a big break when Quintin Mickens fumbled. Matt Sizemore made the recovery for North Laurel at the 10-yard line. It took just one handoff to Jose Rodriguez for the Jaguars to find the end zone. Rodriguez was hit at the 5-yard line but spun away and scored with the defender still clinging to his jersey. The half ended with Harlan County leading 10-7.
“We had the ball a lot. We just couldn’t get anything clicking,” Larkey said.
The third quarter looked like a stalemate with North Laurel winning the field position battle. It paid off when the Jaguars forced Harlan County to punt. A short punt gave North Laurel the ball at the Black Bears’ 45-yard line. The first play was a simple handoff to Sizemore who found a huge hole up the middle. He was nearly untouched until shaking off a tackler at the 8-yard line and coasting in for the touchdown and a 13-10 lead with 49 seconds in the third quarter.
“They had the momentum going into the second half and they got a little momentum after the half. They get that touchdown to take the lead, but our guys kept taking every punch,” Creech said.
After a three-and-out by the Black Bears, McWhorter reeled off runs of 4 yards and 30 yards. Both were called back on penalties.
“We were up and we were going to get the ball on the 40-yard line. We end up back at the 5. That’s a 35-yard penalty on us,” Larkey said.
The Jaguars were forced to punt with their heels on the goal line. It would flip field position again. Harlan County got the ball near midfield. On the first play, Colby Cochran tossed a short pass to Devon Rodrigues that turned it into a 48-yard touchdown. Harlan County regained the lead, 16-13, with 8:41 to play.
“We saw that outside linebacker was continually coming off the edge. It’s really just a little hitch pass. We got it out to one of our athletes and he made a play in space on their safety and it was to the house,” Creech said.
North Laurel faced a tough decision on fourth-and-7 from their 38 with 4:29 to play. Larkey chose to go for the first down with McWhorter’s pass falling incomplete.
“You don’t know if you are going to get it back or not,” Larkey said.
Harlan County sealed the game on Mickens’ 5-yard run with 1:16 remaining.
“We had the lead with about nine minutes to go and we blinked for a second and they scored,” Larkey said. “They’ve got a good football team and we are evenly matched. They just outdid us tonight.”
Harlan County returns home to face Letcher Central. North Laurel will play at Whitley County next week.
“The guys worked hard. It’s just a tough loss for them. It doesn’t get any easier next week. We’ve probably got the district favorite next week at Whitley,” Larkey said.