In a tale of two halves, Bradley Central dominated the opening 24 minutes, but the host McMinn County squad controlled the final two quarters to earn its second straight district title at the expense of the Bears.
“We started out great but then we ran out of gas in the second half,” commented Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd of the 34-29 final. “They (McMinn) don’t have anybody going both ways and with all our injuries, we have a lot of people staying on the field the whole time. It took its toll.”
The outcome leaves Bradley at 6-4 on the season and in a third-place finish in the 5-AAA race with a 4-2 mark. McMinn County holds a 9-1 overall record, including a perfect 6-0 in district play for the repeat crown.
Instead of having to wait 12 months to try to exact some revenge on their longest rivals, the Bears will travel back up Interstate 75 this Friday night for a rematch with the Tribe to open the 2012 TSSAA Class 6A Playoffs seed (see full playoff details in a related story on this page).
Bradley came roaring out of the gate Friday evening, with sophomore Daniel Clark getting the start at linebacker and stripping the ball from the hands of former Walker Valley running back Kelvin Wells Jr. on the second play from scrimmage.
Bear senior Bryce Copeland pounced on the loose pigskin at the Cherokee 40 and four plays later, Bradley was on the scoreboard with a 34-yard flea-flicker pass from Dee Crisp to fellow receiver Cal Pickel, all with just 98 seconds gone off the game clock.
Forcing the hosts to punt on their next two possessions, Bradley put together a 93-yard march near the end of the opening quarter, with QB Copeland connecting with junior Baylor Terrell on catch-and-runs of 21 and 60 yards to set up a 4-yard plunge by junior Logan Fetzner. Junior Clayton Steels booted his second of three first half PATs with 34 ticks left on the first quarter clock.
The Bear defense continued to stifle the potent Cherokee offense on the ensuing possession, catching ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage four times in six plays. Bradley then took possession on the McMinn 26 after the Tribe punter touched his knee to the ground while trying to field a skipped snap.
Two plays later Copeland hit a streaking Pickel for a 36-yard scoring strike and Steels made it 21-0 with 9:40 to go in the half.
The Cherokees reminded Bradley of their quick-strike abilities 33 seconds later when junior Dre Sanders scored on a 1-yard plunge after breaking free for a 62-yard scamper on the previous play.
The Bears felt good going into the half with a 21-6 advantage, outgaining the hosts 220-131, but going with an empty backfield alignment, only two of Bradley’s yards had come on the ground.
“We talked at the half about remembering that they (McMinn) had come back on us last year (in a 48-36 loss that the Bears led 16-10 at the half), but they made more plays than we did in the second half and we couldn’t stop their (defensive) front four, which is the best we’ve seen all year,” bemoaned Floyd of the déjà vu.
After the intermission the Cherokees went on the warpath, scoring on their first two possessions, plus picking up another big touchdown on an 82-yard “Pick 6” to take the lead.
Wells broke free for a 72-yard jaunt up the middle for the first score, on a three-play drive. Sophomore quarterback Corbin Powers swept in from 11 yards out on the fifth play of the following possession. Wells added the two-point conversion run to close the gap to a single point.
After senior Robert Bartolameolli returned the ensuing kickoff to the Tribe 39, the Bears moved into the red zone. However, a holding penalty pushed them back out and then McMinn senior linebacker Austin Fairbanks picked off a pass and had clear sailing to the end zone with 1:32 left in the third quarter.
After the teams traded punts, Bradley got pinned on its own 8-yard line. Despite gaining nine yards on the first two plays, the Bears were unsuccessful on back-to-back short pass attempts and handed the hosts the ball just 17 yards away from paydirt.
Although it took them five plays to find the end zone, Wells pushed the advantage to double digits on a 3-yard run with just 82 seconds left in the game. The two-point conversion pass capped a 34-point run by the Cherokees, turning a 21-point deficit into a 13-point lead.
Not ready to give in, Bradley fought right back, with Copeland hitting five straight passes, including a 40-yard TD toss to Crisp, plus finding the junior for the PAT as well to pull the Bears within six points with just under 20 seconds remaining.
McMinn recovered the onside kick attempt and was able to take a knee to run out the clock and celebrate the district title.
Copeland completed 25-of-41 passes on the night for 364 yards, setting a new career passing record for the Southeast Tennessee area with 6,239 yards in his four years as the Bear starter. The southpaw signal caller surpassed former Rhea County standout Cameron Tallent’s mark of 5.931, set from 2007-10.
Crisp had his most productive night in a Bradley uniform, pulling in 17 passes for 170 yards, plus completing his first varsity pass with the 34-yard TD toss to Pickel.
Terrell pulled in five catches for 105 yards, while Pickel gained 80 on his three receptions, two of which found the end zone.
The Bears were held to just 11 yards on 24 rushes, while McMinn gained 294 yards on 47 carries.
Wells finished with 141 yards on 24 tries and a pair of scores while Sanders completed the one-two punch with 115 yards on 14 carries.
Senior linebacker/defensive end Aaron Kimpson led the Cherokee defense with a dozen tackles, including five sacks and several “hurries.”
“When we saw they weren’t going to run, we blitzed on every play,” McMinn coach Bo Cagle stated after the game.
The Cherokees have won 11 of the last dozen meetings of the state’s second-longest rivalry. However Bradley still holds a 50-36-3 overall advantage in the series that dates back to 1916.
Bradley Central 14 7 0 8 — 29
McMinn County 0 6 20 8 — 34
BC — Cal Pickel 34 pass from Dee Crisp (Clayton Steels kick), 10:12
BC — Logan Fetzner 4 run (Steels kick), :34.8
BC — Pickel 36 pass from Bryce Copeland (Steels kick), 9:40
MC — Dre Sanders 1 run (run failed), 9:07
MC — Kelvin Wells Jr. 72 run (pass failed), 8:29
MC — Corbin Powers 11 run (Wells run), 4:33
MC — Austin Fairbanks 82 interception return (run failed), 1:32
MC — Wells 3 run (Powers to Clay Bennett pass), 1:22
BC — Crisp 40 pass from Copeland (Copeland to Crisp pass), :19.7
First downs 14 10
Rushes-yards 24-11 48-293
Passing yards 364 40
Total yards 375 333
Comp-Att-Int 26-42-1 5-8-0
Punts -Ave. 7-38.6 5-28.0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 4-1
Penalties 8-91 5-42
Rushing: Bryce Copeland 19-7, Logan Fetzner 5-4 TD (BC); Kelvin Wells Jr. 25-140 2 TDs, Dre Sanders 14-115 TD, Corbin Powers 9-38 TD (MC).
Passing: Bryce Copeland 25-41-1 330 2 TDs, Dee Crisp 1-1-0 34 TD (BC); Corbin Powers 5-8-0 40.
Receiving: Dee Crisp 17-170 TD, Baylor Terrell 5-104, Cal Pickel 3-80 TD, Deshawn McCleary 1-10 (BC); Clay Bennett 2-32, Blake Powers 3-8 (MC).
Records: Bradley Central 6-4, 4-2 District 5-AAA; McMinn County 9-1, 6-0 District 5-AAA.