A backup quarterback who was best known for his defense just three weeks ago, sophomore Jacob Branson put together what is likely the best quarter ever for a Harlan County signal caller in the opening period Friday against visiting Perry Central.
Branson completed seven of nine passes for 178 yards in the opening period, helping the Bears build a 33-0 lead on the way to a 46-0 win over the outmanned Commodores, who had no answer for what has suddenly become a high-powered HCHS offense. Branson worked the ball to five receivers in the opening period as Harlan County scored on its first five possessions.
“We wanted to be balanced, but wanted to let Jacob get into a rhythm, and he was able to do that early,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “I thought a lot of people played real well. It was a team effort.”
The victory was the third straight for the Bears, who improved to 4-5 overall and 3-1 in district action. Harlan County finished second in District 8 of 5A and will be at home against Lincoln County in the first round of the playoffs.
Perry Central, led by former Harlan County coach Tom Larkey, fell to 2-7 with their seventh straight loss. The Commodores will miss the playoffs, finishing 0-4 in a five-team district.
The Harlan County defense was just as impressive as the offense, limiting the Commodores nine yards of offense and only one first down. The Bears were able to get into the Perry backfield all night, making 15 tackles for losses out of 27 running plays. Linebackers Rhett Alred, Garry Henson and Caleb Carmical had big games, as well the HCHS defensive front.
“Those guys did a great job on defense, all of them,” Creech said. “They made it easier on our offense.”
The Bears stopped throwing the ball with a big lead early in the second quarter as Branson finished with 182 yards on eight-of-10 passing. Senior tailback Dylan Cornett had his third straight 100-yard game rushing with 119 yards on 11 carries.
Harlan County’s no-huddle offense clicked from the opening play as Branson ran 12 yards, then found senior tight end Gage Burkhart for a 23-yard gain. Tyrese Simmons caught a 23-yard touchdown pass on the third play. Jordan Kelly missed the extra point as the Bears led 6-0 only 24 seconds into the game.
After a three-and-out, the Bears were back in business with a seven-play, 87-yard drive. Simmons and Burkhart each had catches in the march before Cornett ran 21 yards around the right side for a 12-0 lead with 8:21 to play in the opening period.
The defense set up the next touchdown as sophomore defensive back Christian Hall made a diving interception at the Perry Central 28. Branson found Colby King for what appeared to be a 28-yard touchdown pass on the next play. One official signaled a touchdown, but he was overruled by another who said the sophomore receiver went out inside the 1. Branson went airborne for a touchdown on the next play as the lead grew to 18-0 with 6:44 left in the first quarter.
Hall almost had another big play after the Bears made another stop on defense, but his 71-yard punt return was wiped out by a penalty. The Bears needed only one play to reach the end zone again as Branson teamed with Cornett for a screen pass that turned into a 40-yard touchdown. Cornett’s two-point conversion made the score 26-0 with 3:11 left in the opening period.
Branson found Keenon Napier open in the flat for what turned into a 30-yard touchdown on the Bears’ next possession. Kelly’s extra point pushed the lead to 33-0 with 33.5 seconds left in the first.
Harlan County was back in business on the opening play of the second quarter when senior lineman Dillon Day recovered a fumble on the Perry Central 15. Branson ran 19 yards for a touchdown, picking up a block from Burkhart on the sideline, as the lead went to 39-0 with 10:29 left in the first half and started a running clock.
Cornett broke free for a 58-yard touchdown on the Bears’ first offensive play of the second half. Kelly’s extra point extended the lead to 46 points.
Creech went to his reserves late in the third quarter and neither team was able to pick up a first down over the final 17 minutes.
Harlan County will close its regular season schedule Friday at Bell County. Perry Central will travel to Somerset.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134