Some two hours and 20 minutes later, Jones was celebrating with the entire Cleveland roster after the Blue Raiders drove 98 yards in the final minutes to defeat the Hurricanes 21-14 and moved to the semifinals of the Tennessee state football championships.
Two times, Cleveland (10-3) and East Hamilton (10-3) lined up on the football field in 2013, and both times the final outcome came down to which team could make the play at the right time then hold off the other. The first time, the Hurricanes came away with a 21-20 win. This time, the Blue Raiders — led by quarterback Austin Herink’s 178 passing yards and TJ Parker’s 130 yards rushing and two touchdowns — the Raiders fought back after falling behind twice to the Hurricanes to advance with the win.
“There wasn’t any,” Crawford said when asked what made the difference in the game. “It was big plays by both teams. We knew big plays would kill us, and they about did. They [East Hamilton] left a score on the field, there is no doubt. Their kids battled, our kids battled. What do you say? Both teams played extremely hard.
“I’m proud of a great group of young men. We made the most of our opportunities, and you could say they didn’t. But they are well coached. They’re a hard team to beat and a hard team to play against. I have immense respect for those guys, but I am proud of our football team.”
The victory sends Cleveland back to Knoxville West (12-1) next week and the semifinals round of the Tennessee state football championships. The Blue Raiders will again be seeking a measure of revenge after having fallen 35-25 to the Rebels in their first meeting.
It is the first time Cleveland has reached the semifinals since winning its last state championship in 1995, capping three consecutive state championships. It is the eighth time for the Blue Raiders in the state semifinals, who have won five of their previous appearances.
The Blue Raiders racked up more than 370 yards of total offense Friday night, while the Hurricanes totaled just over 300.
“It was just a gutty, gritty performance. There is just no other way to describe it,” Crawford said of his defensive unit. “It wasn’t a thing of beauty, let me rephrase that. It was beautiful, it was just what we are. Our personality is we are scrappy, we fight like crazy, and we play hard the entire game. That’s just who we are. We don’t have a lot of size, but we have a lot of grit, and we have a lot of heart. It was hard-fought against a good football team. It was hard to match up with all their speed. We battled, hung in there and found a way to win.”
The Hurricanes took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter on a 1-yard run by Hunter Moore. East Hamilton missed a chance to take a 10-0 lead when a 33-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
The Blue Raiders promptly answered with a 70-yard drive that ended six plays later when junior Raekwon Bunion scored his first touchdown of the season from two yards out.
Cleveland dodged a second bullet with less than a minute left in the first half recovering a fumble at Cleveland’s 13-yard line.
The Hurricanes blew back onto the field after halftime and raced 78 yards in three plays. Moore connected on a short pass to Tony Francois, who slipped a tackle in the Cleveland secondary for 72 yards to put the ’Canes up 14-7.
Cleveland took the ensuing possession and matched the drive by East Hamilton marching methodically down the field for 78 yards to tie the game a second time. Bunion took care of business on the ground while Herink did the job in the air. The senior lefty hooked up with Bunion and Parker Smith for two 8-yard tosses then recovered his own fumble on a snap and fought for 12 more yards. Herink found Parker for 19 more yards on two passes and Bunion carried twice more for 14 yards before Parker broke free for the final 17 yards for the tying TD with just under five minutes left in the third quarter.
“I thought we had really good balance. We felt like we could run the ball really, really well, and we did that. We were unable to convert third down runs at times but I thought Coach [Adam] Renshaw made a gutsy call on fourth down-and-1 throwing the out route,” Crawford said of the Herink to Smith completion that led to Cleveland’s game-tying TD.
The Cleveland defense, as they had done the entire game, stood strong on the short end of the field after a kick by injured punter Zack Lee went for nine yards, setting the Hurricanes up at the Blue Raiders’ 25-yard line. Moore completed one pass for 16 yards before the Cleveland defense stiffened yet again to stop the drive at the 4-yard line forcing another field goal attempt from 21 yards that again missed the mark.
“He was dinged up. He said he could go and he tried to go,” said Crawford of his junior punter. “Obviously, it wasn’t his best effort, but for him to get out there and try it is amazing. We didn’t think it was fair to put our backup in that situation. He told us he could do it and probably just mis-hit it a little bit. He got hurt, battled through it, and he tried for us. That’s all we can ask.”
The Blue Raiders took control of the football and the game after being pinned at their own 2-yard line after a punt by East Hamilton with 4:46 left to play.
Bunion opened the determining drive with a four-yard gain. Herink then found Brandon Williams open for 36 big yards to the 42. The Raiders overcame a sack on the next play by the Hurricanes when Herink hit DJ Jones for 50 yards to the East Hamilton 15-yard line. Bunion carried twice more to the 5-yard line. From there Herink called on Parker one more time and the junior speedster delivered with a four-yard carry to put the Blue Raiders on top 21-14.
Three incomplete passes and a fumble brought the game to a close with the Blue Raiders looking forward to a rematch Friday with West High School.
“I just can’t brag enough on our kids and the job they did. I thought Austin Herink was huge. He did a masterful job of handling the situation when we had to go the length of the field [on the 98-yard drive]. He made big plays and kept his eyes upfield. Brandon Williams caught a big ball. He’s played football for four months. He’s a homeschool kid that moved in here, it’s a cool story,” said Crawford of the principals in the game-winning drive.
“We’re in the semifinals. We don’t have the [Seattle] Seahawks, so I think we can line up with anybody. We’re excited. We got to play them once already and have an opportunity to redeem ourselves twice in one season. That’s pretty cool.”
Cleveland 0 7 7 7 — 21
East Hamilton 0 7 7 0 — 14
EH — Hunter Moore 1-yd run (Cooper Loftin kick), 6:18
C — Raekwon Bunion 2-yd run (Oscar Galvan kick), 2:22
EH — Tony Francois 72-yd pass from Moore (Loftin kick), 10:26
C — TJ Parker 17-yd run (Galvan kick), 4:47
C — Parker 4-yd run (Galvan kick), 1:27
First downs 17 9
Rushes-yards 26-196 28-64
Passing yards 178 236
Total yards 374 300
Comp-Att-Int 14-18-0 13-25-0
Punts -Ave. 3-16.0 2-46.0
Fumbles-Lost 4-1 3-0
Penalties 0-0 1-5
Rushing: TJ Parker 23-130 2 TDs, Raekwon Bunion 7-54 1 TD (C).
Passing: Austin Herink 14-18-0 178 (C); Hunter Moore 13-25-0 236 (RC).
Receiving: DJ Jones 2-59, Parker Smith 5-55, Brandon Williams 3-53 (C); Tony Francois 3-101 TD, Austin Gatewood 3-55 (EH).
Records: Cleveland 10-3; East Hamilton 10-3.