One win away from a 4A state championship last year, the Johnson Central Golden Eagles have the look of a team ready to win the ultimate prize in November.
Johnson Central executed its obelly option offense to perfection in the first half Friday at Harlan County High School, scoring five times on five possessions in building a 36-8 halftime lead on the way to a 44-8 victory.
The 4-0 Golden Eagles rolled up 290 yards on the ground, led by sophomore speedster Joe Jackson with 186 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. Freshman quarterback Brandon Preece passed for 108 yards and a touchdown and added another TD on the ground.
Harlan County (1-4) did not go down without a fight, picking up 11 first downs while putting together a couple of long drives that ended with no points. The Bears’ only scoring play came on the opening play of the second quarter, with the Eagles already up 21-0, when quarterback Jacob Branson teamed with junior receiver Tyrese Simmons on a 70-yard touchdown pass as Simmons cut between two Johnson Central defensive backs and caught a perfectly placed pass on the run. Quinten Mickens added the two-point conversion.
HCHS opened the second half with a a 17-play drive that took over nine minutes off the clock. With Mickens carrying the ball 11 times and Simmons adding a 24-yard catch, the Bears moved 59 yards, getting to the Johnson Central 3 before senior linebacker Devon Patrick dropped Branson for a 10-yard loss on second down. Patrick was responsible for four of the Eagles’ five sacks, ending at least a couple of other Harlan County threats with big plays in the Bears’ backfield.
Jackson put an exclamation point on the win on the next play after the Bears were stopped as he raced 93 yards for a touchdown, then added the two-point conversion to start a running clock with 2:12 left in the third quarter. Jackson had gained 93 yards on 10 carries in the first half, matching that total on his only run of the second half.
The Eagles opened the game with an eight-play, 61-yard march that concluded with Jackson’s 3-yard run. Jack Headley’s kick pushed the lead to 7-0 with 7:20 left in the opening quarter.
Preece found Geordan Blanton for a 30-yard touchdown catch on the second series. Headley’s kick extended the lead to 14-0 with 4:19 to play in the opening period.
Senior fullback Gunner Slone went in from the 1 with 12.7 seconds left in the first quarter as the lead grew to 21-0 on Headley’s kick.
HCHS had a chance to get back in the game after Simmons’ touchdown catch as Chase Coker pulled down Marcus Kelly’s well-executed onside kick at the Johnson Central 47. Simmons followed with an 11-yard catch, but the threat ended when Patrick broke through for a sack.
Johnson Central scored five plays later on a 16-yard run by Trevor May. Noah Frisby caught a pass from Preece for a two-point conversion and a 29-8 lead with 7:04 to play in the first half.
Harlan County drove into Johnson Central again as Mickens and Coker each picked up first downs, but Patrick again found Branson on fourth down and dropped him for a 7-yard loss.
Preece went 11 yards to cap a six-play scoring drive, then Headley hit the extra point to push the Johnson Central lead to 28 in the final minute of the second quarter.
The Bears moved the ball again in the closing seconds of the half as Branson ran for 20 yards and found Devon Rodrigues for a 7-yard catch to the Johnson Central 40. Patrick made the play again with his third sack to push the Bears back and all but end the threat.
Harlan County opens its district schedule Friday at home against North Laurel in a showdown matching the top two teams in District 8 last season. The Jaguars are the defending champs and were the preseason favorite.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134