By John Stepp For The Times-Tribune
Heading into the district championship game on Friday night, Knox Central Coach Scott Russell knew there wasn’t much difference between his team and the visiting Russell County Lakers.
Both teams were undefeated (8-0) and ranked in the top five of Class 4A polls, and have two of the top players in the state in Knox Central’s Jeffrey Canady and Russell County’s Nick Britt. But with such evenly matched teams, the game came down to one deciding factor – turnovers.
The Panthers coughed up three fumbles in the game, with all three leading to Russell County touchdowns and ultimately a 35-19 victory over Knox Central for the District 6 Title.
“I said before the game, whoever wins the game up front, and whoever wins the turnover battle between two evenly matched teams, will win the game and that’s what happened,” said Russell. “We had three turnovers and that killed us.”
The Lakers received the ball to start the game and looked poised to strike first, picking up three quick first downs on the opening drive. After a failed third down attempt, Russell County brought on kicker Lucas Williams, who is regarded as one of the top kickers in the state. The 33-yard attempt went wide right, giving Knox Central the ball at the Russell County 20-yard line.
The Panthers found success in the running game early, with heavy doses of senior Jeffrey Canady and junior Jonathon Gist. But after two quick first downs, Gist fumbled the football and Russell County recovered at the Knox Central 39-yard line. Five plays later, the Lakers found the endzone on a one-yard sneak from senior quarterback Barton Mann. The extra point by Williams gave Russell County a 7-0 lead with 3:56 left in the first quarter.
“They didn’t stop us. We stopped ourselves every time. On the three turnovers we had, they probably would have been scoring drives because they never stopped us,” said Russell. “We came in wanting to play ball control, and we were doing that, but when you turn the ball over, you give them the ball in the short field and that makes it tough on you.”
Russell County was able to force a punt on the next Knox Central drive and wasted no time adding another touchdown. With the ball on the Panthers’ 44-yard line, Mann connected with a wide open Britt streaking down the sideline for a touchdown. Williams’ extra point gave the Lakers a 14-0 with just over seven minutes remaining in the first half.
The Panthers took the ball to open the second half, and looked to be on a roll. Knox Central drove the ball all the way to the Russell County 31-yard line when Gist had the ball ripped out of his hands and returned 69-yards by Evan Fletcher for another Lakers’ touchdown.
The Panthers quickly responded on the ensuing drive going on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that was capped off by a four-yard touchdown run by Canady. The extra point by Hunter McWright was good, giving Knox Central hope, as they cut the lead to 21-7 with 5:43 left in the third quarter.
Russell County answered the bell on the next drive when Britt took the ball 39 yards for a touchdown. The touchdown was controversial, as Britt appeared to have fumbled the football before he crossed the goal line. Nevertheless, the call was made, and Russell County extended their lead to 28-7 with less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Knox Central would score two more times, trying to rally in the fourth quarter, but came up just short, as the Russell County offense refused to be outdone. As the horn sounded, the Lakers had captured the District 6 Title, 35-19.
The Russell County win came on the back of their star running back Britt, who had 192 yards on 28 carries and one catch for 44 yards.
With the loss, the Panthers will finish second in the district behind Russell County, and will host a first round playoff game at Knox Central.
“I feel like if we come out and play ball the way we know how, these two teams can meet again in the regional finals in a few weeks,” Russell said.
By John Stepp For The Times-Tribune
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