Paintsville briefly took a 26-22 lead midway through the third quarter by scoring successive touchdowns to open the half off recovered kicks, one of the onside variety and the other a pooch kick that Harlan mishandled.
"We thought we'd try to change the momentum a little bit," Paintsville coach David Lemaster said off the onside kick to open the second half. "We've worked on that quite a bit and pulled it off a time or two. We got the momentum, but it all goes back to defense, and we weren't able to stop anybody."
"Our kids were instructed that they were going to onside kick, but we just didn't perform," Harlan coach J.B. Donahue said. "We didn't do some things we're supposed to do on kick returns."
Paintsville's second straight pooch kick was recovered by Harlan after Paintsville had taken the lead, giving the Dragons the ball for the first time in the half with 5:24 left in the quarter. Harlan scored four plays later on a 1-yard run by Teddy Thompson, and the rout was on as the Dragons reeled off 28 unanswered points to take control of what had been a close game.
Thompson led the Dragons' offensive onslaught with 224 yards and three touchdowns. Andrew Grieshop also had three touchdowns, two coming on kickoff returns.
"Our playmakers made some plays tonight. Grieshop wasn't getting the ball a lot on offense, so he decided to take matters into his own hands," Donahue said. "Andrew and Teddy both had big nights, and the offensive line moved them around."
"Harlan has a good team, and they play hard," Lemaster said. "They have two guys who run the ball hard, and we've had trouble all year with those real good, tough running backs. A couple of those scores, we had two or three tackles missed."
Paintsville also had success offensively, at least through the first three quarters, gaining 259 yards on the ground. Junior halfback Hans Doderer rushed for 160 yards, and sophomore quarterback Daniel Pugh added 70 as he did a good job of running the Tigers' belly option attack.
"They have a great offensive scheme," Donahue said. "It's hard to find the football and get to the football."
Harlan set the tone for the game on its opening drive as Thompson appeared to be stopped behind the line of scrimmage before breaking a tackle and racing 42 yards for a touchdown with 6:01 left in the opening quarter.
"We've had trouble all year tackling people," Lemaster said. "We were there in good position all night, but we didn't make plays. I thought coming in here that if we could score 26 points, we had a shot, but if you can't stop anybody, you'll have a hard time winning in the playoffs."
The Dragons lined up to kick an extra point after Thompson's first touchdown, but Grieshop had to improvise after the snap was fumbled. The senior running back/cornerback/kick returner/kicker picked up the loose ball, broke a tackle and found his way into the end zone for two points and an 8-0 lead.
Paintsville wasted no time answering as a 43-yard run by Doderer set up Pugh's 5-yard TD to cut the deficit to 8-6 with 3:49 left in the quarter. Jesse Curry stopped Pugh on the two-point conversion attempt.
The Tigers took the lead on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Pugh to T.J. Freno. Matt Smith stopped Pugh on the two-point conversion attempt, but the Tigers led 12-8 with 1:39 left in the opening period.
Grieshop, who got beat on the touchdown pass, made up for it seconds later as he took the ensuing kickoff straight up the middle for a 90-yard touchdown. He then added the extra point to make it 15-12.
Pugh and Doderer each had several nice runs as the Tigers looked like they were about to answer, driving to the Harlan 6 before being stopped on fourth-and-goal. Thompson took it from there, breaking through a Paintsville defense stacked to stop the run and racing 94 yards for a touchdown. Grieshop's extra point made the score 22-12 with 7:57 to play in the half.
The score remained the same until Paintsville struck twice in the third quarter after recovering kicks. Kyle Sublett scored on a 35-yard run, and fullback Wes Ward added the two-point conversion to cut the deficit to two. Doderer then capped an 11-play, 50-yard drive with a 10-yard run to put the Tigers up by four with 5:28 remaining in the third quarter.
After Thompson's TD put Harlan back on top, a 9-yard touchdown pass from Jon Lundy to senior tight end Seth Haywood started the Dragons' impressive 22-point fourth quarter outburst. Grieshop added the extra point to make the score 35-26 with 9:39 to play.
The Tigers were forced to punt from deep in their own territory. Jeff Collett was dropped at the Tigers' 1 by Grieshop after he recovered a fumbled snap. Grieshop scored on the next play to stretch Harlan's lead to 41-26 with 7:12 remaining.
Paintsville tried to punt again on its next possession, but the result was much the same as the ball was snapped out of the back of the end zone for a safety. Grieshop returned the ensuing free kick 64 yards for a touchdown, then hit the extra point to close the scoring with 5:19 left.
Harlan (8-3) travels to Pikeville on Friday in the Region 4 semifinals. The Panthers, champions of District 8, advanced with a 37-7 win over Somerset.
The season ends for Paintsville (6-5), which had one of the area's youngest teams with only one senior on the roster. Lemaster said the lack of experience hurt the Tigers on Friday.
"There's no substitute for good, solid senior leadership," he said.
Donahue won't argue that point.
"I want to commend these 13 seniors for bouncing back. It was a tough heartbreaking loss to go through last Friday (a 15-8 loss to Williamsburg for the District 7 title). It says a lot about their character and a lot about them.
"Everybody knows about Jake (Anderson), but (linemen) Matt Sutton and Shea Moody are steady for us, and Teddy makes a lot of big plays."