SOMERSET — Unable to match up physically with good teams the past two years, the Harlan County Black Bears showed signs of growing up on Friday in the Don Marshall Bowl against defending state runner-up Pulaski County before falling 26-14.
Harlan County won the battle on the line of scrimmage, outgaining Pulaski 211-116 on the ground.
The Bears also played well on defense, not allowing a drive of over 45 yards while limiting Pulaski to 89 yards through the air and all-state receiver Jake Johnson to only three catches through the first three quarters.
As it turned out, the Bears lost because of special teams, especially porous kickoff coverage that helped senior Jake New return two kickoffs for touchdowns, one covering 92 yards and the other covering 87. The Bears also hurt themselves with fumbles, watching three drives end with turnovers.
“I told our guys there are no longer moral victories, but I really thought our guys gave every ounce they had,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “We were super proud of their heart and grit tonight. However, we’ve got a lot of things to fix before Clay rolls into town (on Friday). You cannot win big games with the miscues we made as a team tonight.”
Harlan County dominated the first quarter statistically, outgaining Pulaski 88-11 on the ground, catching most by surprise by changing from the spread offense of a year ago to a wishbone with two tight ends.
“The two tight, wishbone was our game plan since early this spring against Pulaski,” Creech said. “It gives us the ability to balance a power running attack alongside our spread stuff. We wanted to chunk it up and eat the clock. We fumbled away three drives. You can’t win doing those things.”
Creech alternated his backs throughout the game and several played well behind a strong performance from an improved offensive line as Quintin Mickens gained 91 yards, Kennon Napier picked up 76 and Chase Coker added 29.
Mickens had a 51-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, giving the Bears a first down on the Pulaski 18. HCHS drove to the Pulaski 10 before Marcus Kelly missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.
The Bears drove inside the Pulaski 30 on their second possession before the drive stalled.
Chase Coker picked up a first down on the third drive and appeared to have a second before the ball was stripped away at the Pulaski 32.
Harlan County returned the favor after a 35-yard run by New gave the Maroons a first down on the HCHS 23. Lamar Burkhart knocked down a Cain pass on first down, then Branson picked off a Cain pass on second down, returning it to the Pulaski 16 on a 65-yard return with 4:27 left in the first half.
Mickens went 15 yards on the next play, then Branson scored two plays later on a 1-yard run.
New took the ensuing kickoff back to the Harlan County 41, setting up an eight-play drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Wiley Cain to Jake Sloan. Mickens made the stop on the two-point conversion and HCHS led 8-6 with 47.6 seconds left in the second quarter.
New took back the second half kickoff 92 yards to put Pulaski ahead for the first time. Jackson Mobley added the two-point conversion.
After stopping the Bears, Pulaski was back in business on offense. Ricky Maxey capped a 45-yard drive with a 2-yard TD run with 7:25 left in the third quarter.
A tackle by Tyrese Simmons on fourth down gave Harlan County the ball back near midfield, and senior Kennon Napier went to work behind the Harlan County offensive line as a thick fog settled over the stadium, making it difficult to tell who was carrying the ball. Napier had 52 yards on seven carries, going in from the 14 with 2:16 left in the third quarter.
Harlan County elected to kick the ball back to New, which turned out to be a big mistake as he broke loose through the middle for an 87-yard touchdown. Kelly, who saved a touchdown earlier with a tackle, almost caught New at the goal line but was unable to bring him down as the Maroons built a 12-point lead with two minutes left in the third period.
Simmons had a 15-yard catch as the Bears drove inside the Pulaski 20 before another turnover ended the threat.
A second Harlan County interception, this one by junior safety Colby King, gave the Bears the ball on the Pulaski 31, but they were unable to pick up a first down.
Johnson caught three shovel passes in the ensuing drive as he broke the state record for receptions with his sixth catch with two minutes left.
“Our defense gave up 12 points and held Johnson to three true catches,” Creech said. “They played their guts out.”
Harlan County (0-1) returns to action Friday at home against Clay County.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134