When Brandon Jones graduated after four big years as the Hazard tailback, including over 1,700 yards rushing as a senior, most thought the Bulldogs’ ground game would take a big hit.
Cory Smith had other ideas.
Hazard’s 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore running back carved up the Harlan defense on Friday, rushing for 215 yards on 22 carries and scoring three times as the visiting Bulldogs moved on to the Region 4 finals with a 35-14 win over the Green Dragons. Hazard finished with 348 yards rushing as a team.
“They really gashed us a lot more than I dreamed they could with the running game,” Harlan coach J.B. Donahue said. “They played well up front. I thought their linemen blocked well. It’s just a good football team.”
Harlan kept the game close for a half, trailing only 14-6, before Smith took over in the third quarter, rushing for 121 yards in two impressive drives as the Bulldogs took control.
After Harlan was unable to move the ball on its opening possession of the second half, punter Holden Williams backed the Bulldogs up to their 2 with a 53-yard boot.
Cole Ratliff, Hazard’s standout senior quarterback, found Jason Johnson for catches of 12 yards and 44 yards as the Dogs covered the 98 yards in nine plays. Smith bulled his way in from the 16 for a touchdown. The third of five Tyler Collins extra points pushed Hazard’s lead to 21-6 with 7:06 left in the third quarter.
“That was a big drive on their part,” Donahue said. “I think that kind of sealed the deal. They sapped any momentum we had. I think we played the game right and kicked it to the 2, but they are a good football team and went 98 yards and zapped all our juice.”
Smith was a one-man show on the Dogs’ next drive, covering 79 yards himself in four plays. He went in from the 1 with 4:10 left in the third quarter as the lead grew to 22.
Ratliff found Johnson for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 5:09 left in the game as Hazard built a 29-point advantage.
Sophomore tailback Kendal Brock followed with the biggest run of the night for the Dragons when he went 61 yards with 3:02 to play. Nick Jarvis found Paul Stapleton for the two-point conversion to close the scoring.
Hazard wasted no time building an early lead, marching through the Harlan defense in a seven-play, 62-yard drive capped by Ratliff’s 3-yard run with 10:06 left in the first quarter. Collins hit the extra point.
After a four-and-out by the Dragons, Hazard had a chance to double its lead when Johnson broke free in the Harlan secondary, but Ratliff’s pass was too high and Harlan held.
The Dragons put together perhaps their longest drive of the season on their second possession with an 18-play series that moved them from their 6 to the Hazard 18 before where quarterback Tanner Parks was stopped short on a fourth-down run.
Harlan’s long drive did succeed in flipping the field in the Dragons’ favor as they got the ball back on the Hazard 42 after a short punt, Stapleton had three straight runs to cap a six-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. Cade Fletcher blocked Kilian Ledford’s extra point attempt and the Bulldogs maintained a one-point lead with 5:51 to play in the second half.
While Hazard (10-2) moves to to play Pikeville next week in the Region 4 finals, Harlan ends its best season of the century with a 9-3 mark.
“It was a great season and a great group of seniors,” Donahue said. “I was proud of the leadership they demonstrated. I see a lot of pain and hurt out here. I think these younger kids will remember this feeling and grow from it.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134