Giles County made the defensive stops when it needed to, and the offense produced enough points to build separation and pull away from Loudon, 42-27, in the Class 3A quarterfinal Friday night at Dukes Field.
Playing against an explosive, pass-heavy offense, the Bobcats (12-0) faced their toughest assignment of the season and certainly in the playoffs versus Loudon (11-2).
Loudon quarterback and Class 3A Mr. Football semifinalist Keaton Harig was as good as advertised, throwing for 425 yards and four touchdowns.
But the Bobcat defense stood tall at times, forcing two turnovers on downs while recovering a fumble and snagging an interception.
“Hats off to our guys for coming out and playing well versus a really explosive Loudon offense,” Bobcats head coach David O’Connor said. “We knew they were going to be able to move the football. But the longer the drives lasted, the more likely they were to make a mistake or not find a first down. I was proud of the way our guys hung in there and never lost their spirit on that side of the ball.”
The game was action-packed from the opening drive, with Loudon driving deep into Bobcat territory before a drive stalled in the redzone. Loudon lined up for a 25-yard field goal, but the Bobcats jumped into to the neutral zone on consecutive snaps, prompting Loudon head coach Jeff Harig to send the offense out on the field for a fourth-and-goal attempt.
The Bobcat defense forced Harig to flee the pocket and the opening drive ended in an incompletion in the end zone.
Taking over at their own two-yard line, the Bobcats began to march, eventually breaking for the game’s opening score on a 15-play drive that took over six minutes off the clock. Sophomore quarterback Kamauri Turner broke for the touchdown, popping loose on a 35-yard carry over the left side for the score.
Ahead 7-0, the Bobcat defense forced a quick three-and-out and extended its lead to 14-0 on an eight-play drive that lasted just under three minutes. Sophomore running back X’Zorion Randolph did most of the heavy lifting on the drive and capped it with a three-yard score.
Loudon’s offense showed just how quickly it could strike on the next drive, when Harig uncorked a 75-yard bomb to senior wide receiver Kaden Dockins to cut the lead to 14-7 just two minutes into the second quarter.
Loudon struggled with kickoff coverage all night, and the problems revealed themselves on the ensuing boot as Bobcat senior Jason Rose snagged a squib attempt at his own 30 and ran nearly 40 yards to put the Bobcats just outside the redzone to start the drive.
Randolph would find the endzone in short order, scoring on the fifth play of the Bobcat drive and pushing the lead to 21-7 with just over six minutes left until halftime.
Harig orchestrated another scoring drive for Loudon, finding wideout Joshua Gonzalez on a 19-yard dart to pull back within striking distance at 21-14.
The Bobcats delivered a dramatic touchdown in the final moments of the half, however, reclaiming
the momentum just before the break.
After a chop block penalty negated an 85-yard Tyrick Brown kickoff return for a touchdown, the Bobcats quickly moved down the field and into scoring position.
With just under 30 seconds left and facing fourth and one, the Bobcats quickly sprinted to the line and fooled the Loudon defense with a quarterback keeper as Turner scampered 14 yards for a score.
The move stunned the Loudon crowd, as the Bobcats were also set to receive the second-half kickoff, leading 28-14 at the break.
With fans still returning to their seats after intermission, the Bobcats started the second stanza with a bang, as Brown had a nearly identical return — 90 yards for the score, but this time no penalty flags were to be found.
“You cannot overstate how huge the kickoff return was,” O’Connor said. “That gave us a much-needed cushion. We knew Loudon was probably not done scoring, but that gave us enough room to hang on and do what we needed to do to preserve the win. Our special teams were tremendous tonight.”
With the game already turned on its head, things went off the rails for both teams in the second half offensively.
Harig immediately responded with a pass to a streaking Dockins, who was running untouched into the endzone before inconceivably fumbling the football without contact. A scrum ensued and the Bobcats recovered after both teams had chances to grab possession.
Giles County struggled to find its rhythm, however, as an injury to starting center Justin Birdsong forced the Bobcats into unfamiliar territory. The Bobcat offense sputtered as result, fumbling the ball three different times in the second half — all recovered by Loudon.
Loudon struck for a score late in the third to claw back into the contest at 35-21, but Turner broke free for a final touchdown to ice the contest.
Loudon added a late touchdown to close the scoring at 42-27, giving the Bobcats the victory.
Turner, Randolph and Brown — all sophomores — accounted for all of the Bobcat touchdowns.
Senior running back Chaye McElroy was held out of the endzone, but ran the ball 19 times for 176 yards — his second-best effort of the season and most since going for 222 in the win versus Nolensville in Week 2.
Randolph flanked McElroy with 115 yards and the two scores, while Turner added 59 yards and three touchdowns himself. Turner also connected on 4-of-8 passes for 102 yards.
As a team, the Bobcats ran 49 times for a season-high 375 yards.
Brown had 90 yards on the return, but also added a crucial interception in the end zone and led the Bobcats with three pass defenses.
“This was what playoff football is all about,” O’Connor said. “Our offense made the plays when we needed them to, our defense made crucial stops when we had to have them, and our special teams delivered a shot in the arm to help us leap ahead by three scores in the second half.”
The win sends the Bobcats to the state semifinals for the fifth time in school history and the first time since advancing to the state title game in 2013.
Class 3A powerhouse Alcoa now awaits the Bobcats after throttling Pigeon Forge, 52-0, in its quarterfinal matchup.
The Tornadoes (12-1) have won six straight 3A titles and have not lost a playoff game since falling in the title game in 2014.
“Alcoa is the gold standard in 3A football,” O’Connor said. “We will have to be at our absolute best next Friday. But anything can happen under these Friday night lights. I am proud of the effort our guys gave tonight. Any time you can keep your season alive another week, that’s a good thing.”
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. CST next Friday.