The Black Bears also have playmakers, but none quite as dangerous or effective as Letcher Central quarterback Charlie Banks.
Harlan County led through much of the first half in the first game of school history, but they wore down in the second half as Banks sparked a second-half surge that lifted the Cougars to a thrilling 42-32 victory in front of a near-capacity crowd at Letcher Central.
Banks, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior who is ranked among the state’s top players, passed for 173 yards and rushed for 81 yards and four touchdowns.
“I knew he would be the difference in the game, because he’s such a good athlete. He’s hard to bring down when he runs it,” Harlan County coach Tom Lakey said.
“He’s a tremendous football player,” added Letcher Central coach Hillard Howard.
Harlan County capitalized on a rare Banks mistake to grab the early momentum as senior linebacker Glenn Roberts picked off a pass at the Letcher 20 and coasted into the end zone for the first points in Black Bears history. James Ball’s extra point gave Harlan County a 7-0 lead with 4:21 to play in the first quarter.
The Black Bears were back in business seconds later after Robbie Halcomb recovered an onside kick on the Letcher 49. Following a procedure penalty, Roberts rumbled 51 yards to the Letcher 3. Roberts scored three plays later with an 8-yard-run to extend the Bears’ lead to 13-0.
Banks made certain the Bears didn’t run away as he directed a 42-yard drive after Logan Johnson recovered another onside kick. Banks connected with Dustin Brown for 31 yards and went the final 11 yards himself. The extra point by Zach Lucas cut the deficit to 13-7 with 1:13 left in the first quarter.
The Cougars’ defense tied the game early in the second period as McKenzie Smith forced a fumble with a vicious hit of Harlan County quarterback Zach Blanton, and Greg Collins scooped up the loose ball and went 55 yards for a touchdown with 8:32 left in the half.
Blanton answered as he rolled out on a third-and-five play and found tight end James Phillips for a 38-yard TD pass with 5:11 to play in the half.
The Cougars responded by driving 80 yards in nine plays, capped by Banks’ 5-yard touchdown run. The extra point by Lucas gave Letcher its first lead, at 20-19, with 1:26 left.
Harlan County wasn’t finished for the half, however, as Gilliam went 23 yards and sophomore wide receiver Dylon Smith caught a pass for 34 yards to set up a 5-yard TD pass from Blanton to Smith with five seconds remaining in the second quarter. The two-point conversion attempt was no good, but Harlan County held a 25-20 lead at the break.
Both coaches agreed that the Black Bears appeared to lose some intensity in the third quarter as Letcher dominated the period.
“I thought they wore down just a little bit,” Howard said. “Our kids are in real good shape, and I thought we blocked a little bit better in the second half. Our running was zero early in the game, but as the game went on we got a little better.
“They give you a lot of different looks, and our kids were a little confused with it. I think we adjusted.”
After being held to 54 yards on the ground in the first half, the Cougars gained 73 in the third quarter in two touchdown drives.
Banks went 10 yards for a touchdown to cap Letcher’s opening drive of the third quarter, and senior fullback Caleb Frazier added the two-point conversion with 10:34 to play in the third quarter.
Banks teamed with Craig Collier for a 32-yard touchdown pass on the second drive as the senior received broke free after Harlan County defensive back Blake Polson lost his footing. Lucas’ extra point gave the Cougars a 35-25 lead with 2:44 left in the period.
“I felt our defense started doing a lot of arm tackling,” Larkey said. “I think we got a little bit soft coming up to make the hits. They began to pick on us in a few places that they found a weakness.
“They may have wanted it more the third quarter. I don’t know if they did or not. Our kids have to get a little more fight in them and do it for 48 minutes. Our receivers got pretty tired. They really couldn’t run their routes very fast. Our team speed wasn’t there in the fourth quarter.”
Letcher appeared ready to put the game away when Chase Adams broke free for a 23-yard run that ended a yard short of the end zone as Adams fumbled through the back of the end zone for a touchback.
Harlan County couldn’t capitalize on the mistake as the Bears’ offense continued to struggle after a good first half. Both Gilliam and Lance Simmons dropped potential touchdown passes after slipping behind the Letcher defense.
“Our kids tried to play them a little bit tight, and they have more speed than we have,” Howard said. “If a guy is standing back there 10 yards, and a guy runs by him, it’s just a mental thing.
After a Letcher fumble, the Harlan County offense got back on track and back in the game with a four-play scoring drive. Gilliam caught a 35-yard pass from Blanton, who went the final 8 yards for a touchdown. Ball’s extra point pulled the Bears within three.
The Harlan County defense found its second wind at that point and forced a three-and-out. A 19-yard pass from Blanton to Simmons accounted for one first down, but the Bears were unable to sustain the drive and lost the ball on downs at their own 37 after a halfback pass by Smith on fourth down fell incomplete.
Faced with a fourth-and-one at the Harlan County 28, the Cougars gave the ball to Caleb Frazier, and the 241-pound fullback bulled his way for 18 yards. A 6-yard touchdown run by Banks with 38.4 seconds left clinched the win.
The Bears played without junior tailback T.J. Green, who had to sit out the game after he was ejected in Cawood High School’s playoff loss last season to Estill County.
Harlan County (0-1) returns to action Friday at Lynn Camp, and Larkey says the Bears will focus on improving their depth as the season progresses.
“We’ve got to get a few more guys in there. We’re trying to work them in practice,” he said. “We need more linemen, especially, because two or three are going both ways. We also have some skilled kids going two ways. We need to build more depth if at all possible.”
Harlan Co. 13 12 0 7 — 32
Letcher Cent. 7 13 15 7 — 42
HC — Roberts 20 interception return (Ball kick)
HC — Roberts 8 run (kick failed)
LC — Banks 11 run (Lucas kick)
LC — Collins 55 fumble return (run failed)
HC — J. Phillips 38 pass from Blanton (kick blocked)
LC — Banks 5 run (Lucas kick)
HC — Smith 5 pass from Blanton (run failed)
LC — Banks 10 run (C. Frazier run)
LC — Collier 32 pass from Banks (Lucas kick)
HC — Blanton 8 run (Ball kick)
LC — Banks 6 run (Lucas kick)
First downs 13 15
Rushes-yards 40-182 35-217
Passing 146 173
Comp-Att-Int 8-17-0 6-10-1
Punts-Avg 7-29 2-46
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 2-2
Penalties-Yards 8-60 3-28
RUSHING—Harlan County, Roberts 11-80, Gilliam 16-63, Blanton 9-21, Simmons 2-12, Clark 2-6. Letcher Central, Banks 12-81, Collins 7-48, C. Frazier 5-29, Adams 1-23, Stephens 3-17, M. Frazier 5-15, Brown 2-4.
PASSING—Harlan County, Blanton 8-16-0-146, Smith 0-1-0-0. Letcher Central, Banks 6-10-1-173.
RECEIVING—Harlan County Simmons 3-31, Smith 2-39, J. Phillips 1-38, Gilliam 1-35, Roberts 1-3. Letcher Central, Collier 2-40, Stephens 1-44, Maggard 1-42, Brown 1-31, Smith 1-16.