History will record the date as Oct. 17, 2008, the day the Harlan County Black Bears pounded the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets 58-36 behind a record-breaking performance from senior tailback Nathaniel Gilliam, who rushed for 426 yards on 19 carries and scored seven touchdowns.
The yardage reportedly broke a mountain record, held previously by Lawrence County’s Michael West, and placed Gilliam eighth on the all-time list for yardage in one game. Gilliam’s 48 points placed him in a tie for fifth in Kentucky history for one game.
“The linemen were blowing open the holes. The blast was there all night,” Gilliam said. “Coach told me all week to hit the hole hard, and that’s what I tried to go out there and do.”
“That’s unbelievable. That’s the most yards a tailback has had that I’ve coached,” Harlan County coach Tom Larkey said. “He’s a good kid, and the thing about this team is that there is no jealousy. We had other kids who did a good job. Lance Simmons did a good job running the ball and on special teams, and Dylon (Smith) can also run it.”
The Black Bears rolled up a whopping 630 yards on the ground, passing only once all night as starting quarterback Zach Blanton sat out while recovering from a wrist injury. Harlan County continually made the Jackets pay for their pressing style of defense that features nine defenders in the box and lacks a safety, meaning Gilliam was off to the races whenever he could break through the line of scrimmage.
“We worked this week on the same stuff we ran tonight in the game. We had some other plans to run other things, but if something works, I stay right with it,” Larkey said. “I felt the best the best way to run and move the ball against Middlesboro was to run right at them.”
The Harlan County offensive front of Mark Boggs, Cody Ison, James Ball, Austin Short and George Shoemaker established control of the line of scrimmage early as Gilliam scored on touchdown runs of 81 and 79 yards in the first quarter.
“They had a tough job this week in practice trying to recognize the different defensive alignment,” Larkey said of his offensive line. “A couple of times they had to change the blocking scheme depending on the defense. Our line is getting a lot smarter.”
For Middlesboro coach Kenny Roark, the game proved that the Black Bears are for real. Middlesboro has owned Harlan County teams through the years, not losing to a county team since falling to Harlan in 1996.
“They are a very solid football team. There is no doubt that,” Roark said. “They are good up front on both sides of the ball and have good skilled people.”
Larkey says the decisive victory against a traditional mountain power is a big step for the Harlan County program.
“These kids need and deserve respect. They’ve worked hard,” he said. “Our team has been narrowed down to fewer numbers, but the ones who have stayed out here have a lot of heart.”
Middlesboro had plenty offensive success of its own, especially in the first half as freshman Chase Roark, the coach’s son, passed for 219 yards before being sidelined with a knee injury.
“Chase got hurt, and it took us out of our gameplan a little bit,” Roark said. “I thought he did a pretty good, being a freshman. He’s gotten better. He’s throwing the ball well, and we’re catching the ball.”
Senior running back/quarterback Hunter Adams, one of the state’s top players, also had a big game for the Jackets as he rushed for 154 yards and passed for 76. He ran for three touchdowns and passed for another.
Adams kept the Jackets in the game early, matching Gilliam big play for big play for much of the first three quarters.
After Gilliam went 81 yards on the third play of the game, the Jackets answered on a 10-yard run by Adams to cut the deficit to 8-6. Middlesboro capitalized on a fumbled punt by Simmons on a booming kick by Middlesboro’s Matt Powers.
Gilliam needed only two plays to answer with a 79-yard run to push the lead to 14-6 with 6:38 left in the opening quarter.
A 26-yard completion from Roark to Powers set up a 6-yard touchdown run by Adams with 4:30 to play in the first period. Adams pulled the Jackets even with the two-point conversion.
A long run by Simmons moved Harlan County inside the Middlesboro 10, but the Jackets’ defense stopped quarterback T.J. Green on fourth down at the 7. Middlesboro was unable to escape the poor field position, though, as Roark’s pitch rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
Another long run by Simmons on the kickoff set up Gilliam for a 53-yard touchdown run that was unlike the first two — the Harlan County tailback bobbed and weaved his way down the field this time, picking up several blocks on the way to the end zone. Simmons added the two-point conversion for a 24-14 lead with 1:32 to play in the first quarter.
Middlesboro answered on the first play of the second quarter as Roark went in from the 2 to cap a four-play drive. Patrick Knuckles’ extra point cut the deficit to 21-14.
A catch by Blake Polson and two long runs by Simmons highlighted an eight-play, 67-yard march by the Bears that ended when Gilliam went in from the 8 for a 30-21 lead with 7:55 left in the first half.
The next Middlesboro touchdown was typical of several big plays by the Jackets in the first half as senior wide receiver Eddie Gilbert caught a pass deflected by a Harlan County defender for a 55-yard scoring connection from Roark. Knuckles’ extra point again cut the deficit to two.
Harlan County defenders were in position numerous times to make tackles on long plays, but the Bears came up empty several times in the first half.
“I think our defensive backs are there on the coverage, but they aren’t making the effort to go after the ball when it’s there,” Larkey said.
Gilliam helped Harlan County recapture the momentum before the break with a 79-yard touchdown run that pushed the lead to 36-28 with 4:01 to play in the second quarter.
Roark wasn’t sure what was to blame for the Jackets’ defensive breakdowns that Gilliam exploited time and time again.
“I’ll have to watch the film and see. I don’t know if we were just getting whipped up front or what it was,” he said.
The Harlan County defense also picked up some steam going into the second half by stopping the Jackets on their final drive of the second quarter. Ison, a senior tackle, and Green, a junior linebacker, each had tackles for losses.
Middlesboro had only one touchdown in the second half, a 71-yard run by Adams with 5:03 left in the third quarter. Eddie Witherspoon ran in the two-point conversion to cut the deficit to eight.
“Adams is such a threat,” Larkey said. “I was real pleased with the team. I felt we had to stop Hunter Adams from running the football. Roark did a great job throwing it, and we have to work in the future on a little more pass coverage. But this defense isn’t designed for perfect pass coverage. It’s designed to stop the run, and these kids are still learning it.”
Gilliam opened the scoring with a 1-yard run on fourth down after Simmons took Powers’ punt to the Middlesboro 8. Gilliam also added the two-point conversion.
After Adams put the Jackets back within striking distance, Harlan County wasted no time reclaming control as Polson took the kickoff to the 42 and Gilliam raced 58 yards on the next play for a touchdown. Gilliam’s two-point conversion stretched the lead to 52-36.
Dwight Burgan, playing fullback in place of Glenn Roberts, who was limited to defense due to an ankle injury, closed the scoring by rumbling 35 yards through the middle of the Middlesboro defense for a touchdown with 10:18 to play.
Smith set up the score and stopped a Middlesboro drive by picking off a pass at the Bears’ 5 and returning it 21 yards. Polson added an interception in the end zone to end the final Middlesboro threat with 1:48 left.
Harlan County (5-2) will play its final regular season home game Friday against Estill County in a showdown for second place in District 6 of 3A. The Black Bears could guarantee a home playoff game with a win.
Middlesboro (4-3) returns to district action next week against Knott Central.
“We’ve got to heal up,” Roark said. “We play a tough schedule. We have to heal up and get our minds set and keep going with it.”
Middlesboro 14 14 8 0 — 36
Harlan Co. 24 12 16 6 — 58
HC — Gilliam 81 run (Gilliam run)
M — Adams 10 run (kick blocked)
H C — Gilliam 79 run (kick failed)
M — Adams 6 run (Adams run)
HC — Ball fumbled out of end zone for safety
HC — Gilliam 53 run (Simmons run)
M — Roark 2 run (Knuckles kick)
H C — Gilliam 8 run (pass failed)
M — Gilbert 40 pass from Roark (Knuckles kick)
HC — Gilliam 79 run (run failed)
HC — Gilliam 1 run (Gilliam run)
M — Adams 71 run (E. Witherspoon run)
HC — Gilliam 58 run (Gilliam run)
HC — Burgan 35 run (run failed)
First downs 20 15
Rushes-yards 29-178 44-630
Passing 295 10
Comp-Att-Int 18-33-2 1-1-0
Punts-Avg 4-35 1-25
Fumbles-Lost 3-2 2-2
Penalties-Yards 5-50 6-26
RUSHING—Middlesboro, Adams 20-154, Foister 6-38, Roark 3-(-14). Harlan County, Gilliam 19-426, Simmons 10-91, Smith 9-61, Burgan 2-38, Green 3-10, Taylor 1-4.
PASSING—Middlesboro, Roark 11-14-0-219, Adams, 7-19-2-76. Harlan County, Green 1-1-10.
RECEIVING—Middlesboro, Gilbert 5-116, Powers 5-71, Branham 4-52, Womack 2-51, Adams 2-5. Harlan County, Polson 1-10.