TIMES TRIBUNE (CORBIN, Ky.)
By Mitch Howard / The Endzone Staff
SOMERSET — As the final bell sounded, the calls for a rematch began.
No. 2 ranked Pulaski County weathered an early knockout attempt from North Laurel and claimed a 42-26 win in the battle of unbeaten teams.
“We hope to see them again,” North Laurel coach Chris Larkey said. “It means we’re in the playoffs and it means we win a game in the playoffs. But we aren’t guaranteed anything and our kids know that.”
Should the two teams meet again, the Jaguars would like to see how they matched up with a full arsenal at their disposal. The Jaguars lost star Michael Nelson to a high ankle sprain Thursday. That left them without their key weapon at quarterback and a key defender at safety. Also out was middle linebacker and leading tackler Austin Baker.
“When the injuries occur the day before the game it’s hard. All of the sudden you have to change your game plan. We had to change everything around,” Larkey said.
There was no question what the game plan was early. It was a double barrel dose of Gabe Blair eating up clock and pounding the Pulaski County defense. Blair rushed for 97 yards in the first quarter and 194 for the game on 35 carries. Behind the bruising running attack, the Jaguars jumped on top 10-0.
“I think we did a great job on running the football. We tried to control the clock the best we could do and I think we did do that,” Larkey said.
North Laurel’s first possession was 75 yards of manual labor. The first 13 carries of the 15-play drive were by Blair. The 14th play was a surprise bootleg by quarterback Hagen Hodges with his dive just short of the goal line. The final carry was Blair moving the pile 1-yard.
“The kids responded and they believed,” Larkey said.
The Maroons first possession ended with a fumble at the North Laurel 33-yard line. That meant more Blair. The second play, Blair knocked all the air out of a would-be tackler that had to be helped off the field. Two more Blair runs and he was finally slowed. It took a busted helmet sending Blair to the sidelines to give the defense a break. He came back one play later to push the Jaguars to the 10-yard line. There on fourth-and-two the Jaguars made it a 10-0 game on a Keaton Kennedy field goal.
“We had to get the points on the board. We know they are going to score. They can score at any time,” Larkey said.
It didn’t take long.
A pair of completions by quarterback Riley Hall and a North Laurel penalty had the Maroons on the board in less than 30 second. Hall’s 58-yard touchdown pass to George Gregory made it a 10-7 game. The defense had a chance to drop Gregory, but missed tackles would be one of the game’s storylines.
“Our kids fought hard. We just made mental mistakes and didn’t tackle very well, but that’s not to take anything away from Pulaski because they do a good job with what they do,” Larkey said.
What they do is score about 50 points per game with at least 38 points in every game this season.
North Laurel was driving again in the closing minutes of the half. They reached the Pulaski County 34 before stalling. Kennedy missed on a 55-yard field goal attempt with 2:16. It was enough time for Pulaski County. With 42.8 seconds, Aaron Smith broke a 38-yard run to give the Maroons their first lead at 14-10.
Pulaski County made it 21-10 on a 12-yard run by Hall with 5:57 in the third.
North Laurel countered with a 75-yard kick return by Cole Lewis. Lewis was dragged down at the 15-yard line. North Laurel would settle for a 25-yard Kennedy field goal to make it a 21-13 game.
The Maroons offense was in a rhythm now and quickly drove 80 yards capped by an eight-yard pass from Hall to Caleb Cox for a 28-13 lead.
North Laurel again answered with an 80-yard drive ending with Hodges one-yard run. The big play on the drive was a 30-yard pass from Blair to Jaythus Riley.
Two plays later, Pulaski County made it 35-20 on a 78-yard pass from Hall to Jake Johnson with 6:16 to play.
After North Laurel turned the ball over on downs, Pulaski County struck one last time on a 44-yard run by Aaron Smith to make it 42-20.
Steven Nelson returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards to close out the scoring.
“I’m real proud of our guys. They played a super game tonight. They were in it to the very end. The game was closer than what it looks like on the scoreboard,” Larkey said.