Playing the first of four straight games against their closest rivals, Bradley Central got off to a great start Friday night at Bear Stadium, but just before the half, the momentum shifted and a two-touchdown lead turned into their first district loss of the season.
“We played well at first, but then we gave them (Ooltewah) a couple of opportunities just before the half,” expressed Bear head coach Damon Floyd. “They came back and tied it up and our guys looked stunned in the locker room.”
After being held to just 47 rushing yards in the first half, the Owls exploded for 266 in the final 24 minutes, scoring on their first four possessions for a 34-23 victory.
Desmond Pittman carried the load for Ooltewah, gaining 196 yards on 22 second-half carries on his way to a 246-yard night with three of his 34 rushes ending in the end zone.
“We couldn’t stop the run in the second half,” bemoaned Floyd. “We lost some of our enthusiasm. We stopped trusting our assignments, leaving gaps open and they (Ooltewah) kept our offense off the field with their running game.”
The outcome drops Bradley (4-3, 2-1) into a tie for second place in the District 5-AAA race, with Cleveland (4-3, 2-1), which also suffered its first league loss Friday in a 26-21 battle with 5-AAA leader McMinn County (6-1, 5-0).
“Ooltewah is one of our toughest rivals,” declared Floyd as the Bears now holds a 17-11 lead the series which started in 1985. “The schools are only 12 miles apart. They are just as much of a rival to us as McMinn and Walker Valley and not far behind Cleveland.”
This week Bradley will travel to a resurgent Walker Valley (4-3, 1-2), which is coming off of a 42-12 thrashing of Soddy-Daisy.
“They (Walker Valley) are going to be pumped, so we better put this game behind us and get ready for a fight,” Floyd said of the Friday night trip to “The Corral.”
The Bear lineup which has been decimated by injuries this season, lost two more starters Friday night with standout linebackers LJ Goodridge and Nate Mills possibly done for the season.
“LJ (Goodridge) probably blew his MCL or ACL, we won’t know for sure until his knee gets scanned. Nate (Mills), who was already suffering with a shoulder problem, popped his hamstring,” related Floyd.
Near the end of the game, the Bradley stands went quite when four-year starting quarterback Bryce Copeland remained on the turf after taking a hard hit.
“He had the wind knocked out of him, plus he dislocated his pinky on his non-throwing hand,” the coach commented.
After sitting out three plays, Copeland returned and finished the night with a team-leading 66 yards on 16 carries, including a pair of touchdowns, plus completed 8-of-14 passes for 187 yards, one of which was a 42-yard scoring toss to Dee Crisp.
Crisp had a strong night on both sides of the ball, pulling in a pair of passes for 66 yards, plus picking off an interception and breaking up another pass while being in on a half dozen tackles.
After forcing a three-and-out on the game’s opening series, Ooltewah got on the scoreboard first with a 55-yard, nine-play drive on their first possession.
However, the Owls had to settle for a 20-yard Laszlo Toser field goal after the Bear defense turned them back from a first-and-goal at the 2 yard line.
Senior Robert Bartolameolli sacked Owl signal caller Brody Binder for a nine-yard loss on the first play. Crisp made a touchdown-saving tackle on the next play at the 4, before Bartolameolli came through again nailing Pittman after just a one-yard gain to force the kick at the 6:37 mark of the opening quarter.
Bradley’s offense wasted no time in responding after Mills return the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to the Owl 38.
After a four-yard loss on the first play, Copeland hit a streaking Crisp for the lead 56 seconds after the Owl score.
The Bears scored on their next possession as well when Copeland capped a nine-play, 73-yard march with a one-yard sneak with 9:48 left in the half.
Bradley continued its dominance two plays after the ensuing kickoff when Binder tried to hit a receiver in the left flat, but Bartolameolli got a hand on the ball and tipped it to Crisp, who returned it 27 yards to the Owl 40.
Seven plays later, junior Clayton Steels drilled a 34-yard field goal to give the hosts a 17-3 advantage with 6:49 on the clock.
The Bear defense continued its stellar play on the next series when junior linebacker Jordan Timmons and sophomore Derrick Murray made back-to-back tackles for loss and Crisp knocked a pass away from a receiver to force an Owl punt.
However, being backed up to their own 8 yard line, Bradley put the ball on the ground and Ooltewah linebacker Stewart Doss pounced on the pigskin at the 11. Three plays later Pittman punched it in from a yard out with 4:07 remaining before the break.
Inspired, the Owl defense forced another three-and-out, including an 11-yard sack, to force a Bear punt from inside their own 5.
Shaw Montgomery fielded the punt on a dead run at the Bradley 41 and quickly “took it to the house” to even the game with 98 ticks left in the first half.
After the intermission, Ooltewah set the tone with 13-play, clock-chewing 62-yard drive that ended with Pittman scoring from five yards out.
The Bears responded with a seven-play scoring march of their own, highlight by a 60-yard hookup between Copeland and senior Deshawn McCleary that got the ball to the Owl 8. Copeland did the honors on a fourth-and-1.
Although the extra-point attempt went wide left, preventing the score from being tied, it wouldn’t matter as the visitors tacked on the game’s final 10 points. Pittman scored on a one-yard plunge with nine seconds on the third quarter clock and Toser split the uprights from 37 yards out with 6:56 remaining.
Bradley did have one last chance to score, driving the ball inside the red zone, but a tipped away pass in the end zone and an interception at the 2 yard line thwarted the effort.
“We kept fighting but we came up short,” declared Floyd.