OOLTEWAH — Friday night was a night of firsts.
The Cleveland Blue Raiders picked up their first victory of the 2012 season, snapping a two-game slide by beating the Ooltewah Owls 27-26.
It was also the first win under new head coach Ron Crawford, and a vital first step on the road to rebuilding a once-great program.
Coming into the contest Ooltewah carried a record of 2-0 and was coming off a big win against seventh-ranked 4A East Hamilton.
Cleveland, on the other hand, was sitting at 0-2 after falling to top-ranked 6A Maryville and sixth-ranked 5A Knoxville Catholic in its first two games.
With the hot start and home-field advantage it was the Owls’ game to lose. They did just that, with more than a little help from some guys in Raider blue.
The fireworks started early — really early — when Ooltewah coughed up the ball on the very first play of its opening drive. Senior CJ Bryant secured the loose ball to give Cleveland an early injection of much needed momentum.
Offensively, the Raiders took over on the Owls’ 35-yard line, but quickly ran into a fourth-down situation when Ooltewah handed them another gift in the form of a penalty which resulted in a first down.
Cleveland made the home team pay for the second-chance opportunity when quarterback Austin Herink threw for a 20-yard scoring strike to Bryant to put the Raiders up 7-0 early.
The Owls looked well on their way to redemption on their second drive, grabbing four first downs and creeping close to the Raider red zone. But, on the 10th play of the drive the “Crisco ball” struck again when Ooltewah once again put the ball on the turf and Cleveland once again gained possession.
A 26-yard strike from Herink to Tyler Davis looked to have the ball rolling, but a short run and a pair of incompletions forced the Raiders to call in their new kicker, soccer standout Jesse Jones, to punt.
On CHS’s next defensive stand, senior David Morgan swatted the Owls out of the sky with back-to-back batted passes to force an Ooltewah punt.
Facing a quick fourth-and-short on its next drive, it was Cleveland’s turn to drop the ball, giving the Owls possession not on downs but on the game’s third fumble.
The most elusive player on the field — the ball — changed its mind once again when it leapt from its Ooltewah owner on the very next play, right into the waiting hands of Bryant, who quickly proceeded to race it 32 yards for another Cleveland TD, bringing the score to 14-0 with 4:05 left in the opening quarter.
Ooltewah’s first possession of the second quarter got off to a deja vu start when the team fumbled on a punt return, but by some miracle the home team was able to keep possession.
Miracles ran out four plays later when the Owls fumbled and lost the ball for the fourth time in the first half.
That should have been good news for the Raiders and probably would have been if they didn’t notch their own lost fumble three plays later. In total the teams combined for a whopping seven first-half fumbles, six of which changed possession.
Owl running back TJ Davis took one play to get the home team back into the game when he carried the rock 45 yards for Ooltewah’s first score, putting the team on the board with 7:49 left in the half.
The game went from weird to bizarre during the next Raider drive when the fumble-fest saw its first of two safeties, bringing the Owls within five points of Cleveland at 14-9.
After a strong opening period, the second quarter was unfriendly to the visiting Raiders. Facing a three-and-out on their next possession a bad snap from the punt formation gave Ooltewah the ball on the Raider 11 yard line.
Four plays and a two-point conversion later the Owls had gained their first lead of the game, scoring 17 unanswered points to go up 17-14. That’s where things stood when the teams took to the locker room for halftime.
Cleveland hit the reset button when it came out to begin the second half. After getting off to the hot start in the very beginning of the game the team picked that pace right back up to take early control of the second half.
Launching into a clock- and yardage-eating 16 play drive, the Raiders gobbled up 77 yards to put themselves back into the driver’s seat when Herink connected with Parker Smith for a 17-yard scoring strike to put CHS back on top, 21-17.
The team’s next drive couldn’t have been more different. A fumble, a bad snap and a huge sack took plenty of wind out of Cleveland’s sails and gave the Owls a shot of momentum.
Ooltewah didn’t waste the opportunity. The offense surged 61 yards on the ground, capping the drive with a 2-yard power run by Desmond Pittman for the score. The touchdown gave the home team a 24-21 lead with 2:27 left in the third quarter.
It looked like a pretty serious implosion for Cleveland on its next possession when two bad snaps resulted in the Owls claiming their second safety to extend the lead to 26-21 as the third quarter came to a close.
The Raider defense stepped up and stemmed the bleeding in the fourth quarter when Morgan and Kimsey Bell made emphatic stops behind the line to push the Owls into a fourth-and-long situation, forcing a punt.
With the clock quickly winding down Raider nation was on the edge of their seats as Cleveland’s offense took the field with less then three minutes left to play and only down five points.
Starting at the Owl 45-yard line, Herink connected on back-to-back passes, the first one to Raekwon Bunion for 6 yards and the second to Eric Goodwin for 15 and a Cleveland first down at the Owl 24-yard line. Bryant broke a 13-yard run to put CHS on the 11. Herink then hooked up with Jackson Earl to move the ball to within a yard of the team’s first victory.
An atmosphere of excitement and tension was palpable as Ooltewah burned a timeout to preserve the clock.
Herink put the ball in pay dirt again, this time on the ground as Cleveland surged forward on the line of scrimmage and on the scoreboard, grabbing the 27-26 lead with a minute left in the ballgame.
Raider fans were on their feet, and the sideline exploded, but Ooltewah still had time and now the ball. The game wasn’t over quite yet.
The Owls stole some of Cleveland’s thunder on the first play of their ensuing drive when quarterback Brody Binder found Mike Williams for a 24 yard pitch-and-catch to put Ooltewah in Raider territory.
Binder then connected with Colin Self for another big gain to put the home team just outside of Cleveland’s red zone.
Armed with more than 40 seconds still to play, a stopped clock and a second down it looked like the Owls might just have the momentum they needed to grasp a last-second win from the maw of defeat.
The ball was snapped. The Owl signal caller dropped back to pass and let fly. Hanging in the air for a pair of heartbeats, the ball came to rest right in the waiting arms of Cleveland’s Bryant for a possibly game-saving interception, fittingly letting him bookend the game with pivotal takeaways.
Meanwhile, the visiting sideline and stands erupted as the Raiders, heads held high, were able to walk off the field with a tight and resilient 27-26 victory.
“Tonight was a great victory by our kids. It’s been our personality to hang our head and not fight back when things don’t go well. We just encouraged them to continue fighting and continue working because something good was going to happen for them. Thank God tonight that something good did happen for them,” expressed a relieved coach Crawford after the game.
“It’s a great win for our program and these young men. We had some guys step up and come through huge for us. We’ve needed CJ to get going and he did that tonight. Austin really battled for us. But, overall as a team we were able to keep the faith, keep battling and keep competing, and that got us this win tonight.”
Cleveland will try to keep the momentum going next Friday as the Raiders travel to an 0-2 Chattanooga Central for the fourth game of the season.