CORDELE — All that Jefferson football coach Gene Cathcart asked was for his team to "hit back" in the second half.
It did, and nearly won a state quarterfinals game because of it.
Down 22-7 at intermission, Jefferson (10-2) rallied to within two points of Crisp County (10-3), but couldn't complete the comeback after turning the ball over on a contested call on a potential game-winning drive in a 22-20 loss Friday in Cordele.
"All in all, what a great effort in the second half," Cathcart said. "They responded at halftime, and really came out and laid everything they had on the field, and I'm extremely proud of them for that. Like we explained to them, our love for them is unconditional. That may not be your typical coach thing to say, but that's how we are here."
Crisp County dominated most of the first half — scoring 22-unanswered points and out-gaining the Dragons by 136 yards — before Jefferson seniors Kade McNally and Colby Clark scored second-half touchdowns to cut the Cougars' lead to 22-20 in the fourth quarter.
The Dragons later took over at their own 32 with 4:14 remaining, but the game ultimately ended when officials ruled that Malaki Starks fumbled the ball away after a first-down catch at the Cougars' 35 with 1:49 left.
Jefferson coaches argued that Starks' knee was down before possession was lost, but the call wasn't overruled, and Crisp County knelt on the ball to run out the clock.
"It's disappointing that it comes down to an official's call," Cathcart said. "I won't know until I study it on film if he was right or wrong. There were still several other opportunities we had to make plays that we just didn't quite get it done."
Clark, a three-year starter at quarterback, explained the team's mindset in its second-half rally, using a boxing movie analogy.
"The movie Rocky IV, we went into the second half like that," said Clark, who ran for 76 yards on 17 carries. "They were a big team — fast, strong. I think we had our nerves in the first half. We just had to make them bleed, make them get the cut. They're still human, and that's what we did ... We just kept on swinging. We wanted to go down with a fight."
Both teams ran the ball well in this third-round pairing.
Marquez Palmer rushed for 144 yards to lead Crisp County, which finished with 207 yards on the ground and 331 yards of total offense.
Jefferson rushed for 275 yards, led by Jordan Perry who ran for a game-high 146 yards on just nine carries.
Over half of those yards came on one play when Perry took an option pitch on the second play of the game 77 yards for a touchdown.
But from there, it was all Crisp County until the halftime horn.
A.J. Lofton scored on touchdown runs of 18 yards and one yard — tacking on a 2-point conversion on the second score — and then threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Katorian Raines to put the Cougars up 22-7. Lofton finished with 63 yards on 20 carries.
Yet Jefferson managed to look like a different team in the second half.
The Dragons, after allowing 268 total yards in the first half, forced a three-and-out on the Cougars’ first possession of the second half and followed with a nine-play, 75-yard march that ended with McNally scoring from 12 yards out. Jefferson trailed 22-14 with 6:13 left in the third quarter.
"We made a few adjustments on both sides of the ball, but really the credit is to them (the players)," Cathcart said of the team's second-half improvement. "The intensity level, their body language changed and improved."
Jefferson came close to tying the game early in the fourth quarter when Clark scored from five yards out to cut the lead to 22-20 but was stopped just short of the goal line on a two-point try with 10:54 left in the game.
The Dragons had an opportunity to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter when Kam Robinson picked off a pass and returned it to the Cougars’ 30. A horse-collar penalty at the end of the play moved the ball to the Crisp County 15, but Jefferson had to settle for a Levin Jones 30-yard field goal try with 6:45 left, which sailed wide right.
Jefferson’s final drive reached the Cougars’ 48, where the Dragons faced fourth-and-7. Clark’s pass to Starks picked up 13 yards and the first down before it was ruled that the ball came out before the sophomore running back’s knee hit the ground.
The Dragons’ season-ending loss was its first defeat in over three months since dropping their season opener to Oconee County. Jefferson’s accomplishments this season included a 10-win campaign for the seventh time in eight years, a fourth region title in eight seasons and a sixth quarterfinals appearance in the last eight years.
Even after an emotional loss, Clark — a senior — called this his "favorite season" in his four-year Dragon career.
"This team ... no one expected us to be here," said Clark, who went 24-5 as Jefferson's starting quarterback. "No one expected the fight that we gave. The smallest team that's been here my four years — we never win the look contest. We came out on the field and no one expected us to do what we did, and I wish we'd had a little bit more time, but this is how it goes."
Jefferson's seniors concluded their careers with a 40-10 record with two region titles and two trips to the state quarterfinals and one to the semifinals.
"They've answered every call we've ever asked of them, and like I've said, I'll forever be extremely proud to be this group's coach, and I'm extremely proud of our coaches," Cathcart said.