The Harlan Green Dragons missed out on their bid for the No. 1 playoff spot in Class A District 7 as they fell to host Somerset 14-7 in the regular season finale.
All of the game's points were scored in the first period before defense took over for both squads.
“Our kids gave one hellacious defensive effort out there,” Harlan coach J.B. Donahue said. “I can't say enough about our kids.”
Somerset, which features one of the state's top passing/receiving tandems in senior Ross Deaton and junior John Cole, caught the Dragons off-guard as they relied on their running game to power their two scoring drives.
Deaton fired an incomplete pass on the first snap of the game, then handed off seven straight times as the Briar Jumpers marched 59 yards. Senior A.T. Hunter carried six times for 48 yards on the drive, including a 9-yard scoring run on a toss sweep to the right with 9:34 remaining in the first period. John Wright Polk's kick gave the Jumpers a 7-0 lead.
Hunter, who rushed for 76 yards on 17 carries, missed most of the preseason after suffering a skull fracture in a motocross accident over the summer.
“He had a pretty severe skull fracture and some brain trauma,” Cobb said. “He had to lay down for three months and didn't get the preseason work. He's kind of rounded into form, and you can see he's an important player to us.”
After holding Harlan to a three-and-out and getting a short punt, the Jumpers capitalized on good field position as they drove 45 yards in nine plays, again staying on the ground. A 19-yard run by Hunter moved the ball to the 2, setting up Deaton's scoring plunge with 3:35 left in the period.
Donahue took responsibility for the Dragons' inability to stop the run on Somerset's first two possessions.
“I'm going to take the blame for that. We harped on them all week long about how well they throw the ball, and our kids were back on their heels,” he said. “We never play defense back on our heels. But they lined up and ran the football. Kudos to them - they did a great job.”
Harlan answered with its only touchdown. The Dragons' 80-yard drive was highlighted by senior Derek Sheffield, who caught a short pass from quarterback Chase Jones and turned it into a 55-yard gain to the Somerset 22. Three plays later, Jones connected with a wide open Jon Lundy for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Michael Bianchi's kick set up what became the final margin.
Harlan missed out on a prime chance shortly thereafter, when Matt Lankford recovered Hunter's fumble at the Somerset 21. After three straight incompletions, the Dragons attempted a 38-yard field goal, but Bianchi's kick was blocked and returned by John Coomer to the Harlan 46.
The Dragons' failure to capitalize became a theme in the game, as both teams missed out on numerous scoring chances.
Somerset's ensuing drive ended when Hunter was brought down at the line of scrimmage while trying to convert on fourth-and-one at the Harlan 15.
Polk, a collegiate kicking prospect, was wide right on a 22-yard field goal attempt on the Jumpers' first possession of the third quarter.
Somerset drove to the Harlan 30 later in the period, but Deaton's pass to the end zone was picked off by Sheffield.
“We missed some things tonight - a bunch of things,” Cobb said. “It was as ugly offensively as we've been all year. We got it (in scoring range) all night long, but we missed a field goal, missed on fourth-and-one, threw a pick in the end zone - three times knocking, and you don't get any points. You can't play like that.”
Harlan wasted another huge opportunity with time running out in the fourth period. Polk's punt was blocked by Bianchi and returned to the Somerset 36 by Bradford Marsili with 4:11 to play. On fourth-and-10, Jones threw long to a leaping Sheffield, who appeared to have the ball in his hands - but it bounced out when he hit the ground.
“I think he got it while he was in the air - I think he got his hands on the ball,” Donahue said. “He just didn't come down with it.”
The Dragons forced another punt and got the ball back with 24.3 seconds to play. Jones hit Sheffield for a 26-yard gain to the Somerset 34 and spiked the ball, but his next pass was intercepted by Hunter at the 7.
Cobb praised his team's defensive effort.
“That's the only thing I'm happy with tonight,” he said. “Our defense has been much-maligned all year long. We felt like we've gotten better the last five or six weeks.”
Hunter wasn't the game's only unlikely hero. Harlan senior Casey Belcher was the game's leading rusher, carrying 19 times for 102 yards.
Both teams will host playoff games next week, with Somerset taking on No. 4 Cumberland and Harlan facing No. 3 Williamsburg. Barring upsets, the Dragons and Jumpers could have a rematch in two weeks.
Donahue was uncharacteristically emotional - and outspoken - about the Dragons' chances.
“I don't make statements like this, but we'll see those guys again in two weeks. I'm not guaranteeing anything next week - I'm just saying if we take care of business next week and see those guys in two weeks, they're beat.”