All season long the Bradley Central coaches have been preaching the “Next Man In” philosophy and Friday night the Bears worked it to perfection in a huge homecoming victory over Blackman.
“Ever since Bryce (Copeland, the Bears’ starting quarterback) got hurt in the playoff game that ended our season last year, we’ve realized the importance of having people ready to step in and play. Tonight that’s what we did and just kept on battling,” declared head coach Damon Floyd after his Black-and-Gold squad shocked the powerful Murfreesboro visitors 23-21 Friday night.
Despite entering the game minus four starters and losing another key two-way starter in the first couple of minutes, the fired-up Bears used a trio of key takeaways and a well-balanced offensive attack to extinguish the highly favored Blaze, who narrowly missed a potential game-winning field goal attempt as time expired in a classic struggle that came down to the wire.
“We had told our kids in practice not to worry about the clock or the score, just concentrate on winning the next play. That’s what we did,” proclaimed coach Floyd. “The kids gave an awesome effort and overcame several adversities. We showed some guts tonight. We played ‘Bradley Bear football.’”
Now 3-2 on the season, Bradley returns to District 5-AAA play this Friday when Coach Doug Greene brings his Rhea County Golden Eagles (1-5, 0-2) to Bear Stadium.
“We’re done with our non-district games. Now we play five straight district games to finish the regular season,” explained Floyd, whose team has one 5-AAA victory under its belt already. “We can’t afford to let up. We need to continue to play with this kind of ‘fire.’ Each week will present different challenges, but what we need to do is concentrate on ourselves and do the things we know we can do.”
Friday’s game started with a bang as Blackman’s Cole Notgrass broke free up the middle on the opening kickoff return, but when kicker Mason McCann and Warren Crisp nailed him at midfield, the ball popped loose and Bear senior LJ Goodridge pounced on the loose pigskin.
Taking over on the Blaze 48, Bradley marched downfield in eight plays with Copeland sneaking the ball in from the 1 for the score. The Bears lost senior Nate Mills during the drive with a shoulder injury and the Blaze blocked the extra point to take the edge off the quick start.
“When we lost Nate, we lost two starters — at fullback and ‘Mike’ linebacker,” Floyd remarked. “He had a pretty good knot on his shoulder but they said he could come back in. I said no because of what we had been saying about ‘Next Man In.’ Dee Crisp and DJ Moyse did great jobs of stepping into his slots, played hard and were key to our victory.”
Bradley’s lead was short-lived as Blackman needed just seven plays after the ensuing kickoff to get on the board with a 4-yard plunge from quarterback Chase Smotherman. The extra point put the visitors up 7-6 with 4:43 left in the opening quarter.
The Blaze, who torched Bradley 34-14 in Murfreesboro last season behind a 336-yard rushing performance from current Ole Miss Rebel I’Tavius Mathers, were able to add to their advantage with another scoring drive midway through the second frame.
Taking over after a missed 41-yard field goal attempt, which had plenty of leg, but was wide right, Blackman marched 80 yards on nine plays with Smotherman connecting with Quindel Cousin on a 42-yard scoring strike.
Down by eight points with 4 1/2 minutes to go in the half, Bradley drove into the Red Zone, setting up a 36-yard field goal by junior Clayton Steels to trim the deficit to 14-9 at the intermission.
After senior volleyball standout Kayla Arp was named the school’s homecoming queen, the Bears opened the second half with Copeland either throwing or running for all of the 75 yards needed to find paydirt in the opening drive. After runs of 35 and 14 yards and connecting with Dee Crisp for gains of seven and 11, the senior southpaw hit an open Deshawn McCleary in the end zone to give the hosts a lead they would relinquish.
Blackman tried to answer with a drive to the Bear 5-yard line, but Bradley junior Austin Foss picked off a pass in the end zone to thwart the Blaze scoring effort. Earlier in the game he broke up a pass in the end zone to prevent a Blackman touchdown.
Bradley turned around and marched 91 yards to tack on a key touchdown with Copeland capping a 13-play series with a 2-yard plunge with 11.4 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Despite a penalty and a pair of incomplete passes to start the ensuing drive, the visitors converted a big third-and-15 play for a first down and then four snaps later Notgrass scampered in untouched from 27 yards out and the PAT closed the gap to just two points with 10:19 left to play.
Although that proved to be the final scoring play of the contest the remaining action had the fans on their feet.
After both teams saw drives stalled near midfield, Blackman got a break on the exchange of punts when the Bears muffed a fair catch and the Blaze recovered the fumble just 20 yards from the end zone with 4:25 on the clock.
The visitors looked headed for an easy score when Notgrass broke up the middle for 12 yards on the first down, but the ball came free as he headed to the ground. Coming up with big plays when they needed them all night long, Foss played the role this time, emerging from the pile with the pigskin for his second takeaway of the game to give the Bears the ball back on their own 9.
After a three-and-out forced Bradley to punt from its own end zone and the Blaze returned to ball to the Bear 37, the visitors’ hope was quickly quashed again as Dee Crisp snatched a sideline interception on the first play.
Unable to run the clock completely out, Bradley had to punt once again and Blackman took over on the Bear 41 with 15.5 seconds on the clock.
With his receivers covered, Smotherman scrambled for 15 yards on the first play, getting out of bounds with just four seconds remaining to set up a 43-yard field goal attempt. Senior Kyle Mincey’s kick had plenty of leg, but just tailed off to the left as time expired.
While the Bears displayed a strong “team” effort, several individuals had impressive outings as well.
Copeland accounted for 326 of Bradley 352 offensive yards. “He completed 19-of-25 passes and had one dropped on him,” praised Floyd after the lefty completed his first five passes to open the game, plus hit a string of 10 straight to start the second half.
“His feet also killed them,” the coach proclaimed of Copeland’s 84 yards on 18 carries. “We knew their front seven were good, but he was able to spread them out with short passes and did a great job when he had to run the ball.”
Dee Crisp hauled in seven of Copeland’s aerials for 89 yards, plus the junior stepped into Mills’ linebacker role with several big defensive plays, including breaking up a pass late in the fourth quarter before picking off the interception four plays later.
“Dee was a stud tonight. He shut down Reggie Upshaw when we played Baylor and tonight he did a great job on their big receiver (Cousin),” Floyd praised.
Junior Cal Pickel not only continued his big receiving season with four more catches for 72 yards, but also stepped in for leading-tackler Alex Hopkins at safety and did a good job.
After cracking a rib on a vicious hit in the East Hamilton game two weeks ago, Caleb Cain got released to play just two minutes before kickoff and responded with four catches for 39 yards.
“He told us this was his senior homecoming game and he didn’t want to miss it. His parents signed the release form just before the game. He not only made some big catches but did a heck of a job blocking all night long,” declared Floyd.
McCleary added a 13- and a 17-yard catch to his touchdown reception, while junior Eduardo Trevino had another big night defensively with five tackles for loss among his 10 total hits.
Linebacker Jordan Timmons and Warren Crisp each sacked the Blaze QB, while Tennessee commitment Austin Sanders met Mathers’ little brother, Dee, in the backfield just as he received a handoff, plus threw Notgrass for a four-yard loss as well. Dee Mathers, the Blaze leading rusher coming into the contest, was held to just 24 yards on five carries, while Notgrass finished with 103 yards on 16 carries.
“We had so many players have great games its impossible to name them all,” proclaimed Floyd. “This is the type of team effort and the type of fire we’ve been needing.”