HARTWELL — The much-anticipated matchup between Jefferson and Hart County delivered on its hype with a photo finish.
And at the end, Jefferson could exhale.
Luke Lee’s fourth-down pass attempt into the end zone to star tight end Cane Berrong with 35 seconds left fell incomplete, and the No. 10 Dragons pulled off a major Region 8-AAA victory over No. 5 Hart County Friday (Oct. 11) on the road, 28-23.
“I was nervous, but I knew we had them right there,” senior Dragon linebacker Kade McNally said. “I knew we were going to stop them.”
With the stop, Jefferson (5-1, 3-0 Region 8-AAA) withstood a furious, final Hart County (5-1, 1-1 Region 8-AAA) drive that started at the Bulldog 40 and reached the Dragon 19 in just four pass plays. But after that, two Lee passes fell incomplete, and Lee scrambled for a seven-yard gain on third down, setting up the decisive fourth-down play, which the Bulldogs failed to convert.
“It was a fight all night,” McNally said. “We came in here expecting to win, and that’s what we did. It’s really exciting. We’ve got more games to go, and we’re going to get back to work and stay focused.”
Jefferson was able to hold on for the victory after building a 12-point fourth-quarter lead (28-16), which it established when quarterback Colby Clark barreled in from eight yards out with 9:48 left in the game.
But Hart County responded with a 69-yard, 10-play drive which ended with Lee hitting a wide-open Berrong — a Notre Dame commit — for a 28-yard touchdown pass with 5:16 left in the game.
Jefferson was unable to put the game away in its subsequent possession, due in large part to a drive-killing holding penalty which negated a 54-yard touchdown run from Malaki Starks. The Dragons were forced to punt the ball back to the Bulldogs with 2:05 remaining, putting the game on the defense, which bent but didn’t break.
“First off, a lot of credit Hart County,” Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart said. “(Hart County coach) Rance (Gillespie) and his guys have done an incredible job. We just should not have been in that situation at the end of the game in a nail-biter like that. I’m proud of (my players). We did what we had to do to win.”
Hart County rolled up 440 yards on the night, but the Dragon defense produced three turnovers, including interceptions from Starks and Rem Maxwell.
Jefferson held on to remain undefeated in 8-AAA play in a game that was reminiscent of the program’s 2014 win at Hart County, which clinched a region title that year. In that game, a fourth-down pass from Hart County in the final seconds — to the same end zone — also fell incomplete.
Cathcart, while happy for his players, was critical of himself in his team’s biggest victory of the year. The third-year Dragon coach said he couldn’t emphasize enough “how poorly I performed.”
Cathcart accepted the blame for second-half penalties, including a penalty called on the Jefferson sideline, that he felt prevented Jefferson from putting the game away earlier.
“And that’s all a reflection of the head coach,” he said. “I’m very happy for our guys. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this, and we’ll handle being in a stressful, big game a little bit better the next time we’re in it.”
The Dragons’ rushing attack helped ensure a successful night, rolling up 242 yards. Jefferson was led by Jordan Perry, who ran for 84 yards on 10 carries. Starks added 62 yards on 11 carries.
“(Offensive coordinator) Mike (Doolittle) called a great game, and (quarterback) Colby (Clark) executed very well,” Cathcart said. “Obviously, we were outmatched size-wise on the lines of scrimmage.”
Perry scored two touchdowns, the first of which was an eight-yarder that came with just 50 seconds left in the first quarter to give the Dragons a 7-0 lead. Perry then answered a 19-yard touchdown run from Hart County’s Malachi Thomas in the second quarter with a 33-yard jaunt to the end zone with 7:55 left before halftime, putting the Dragons ahead 14-7.
Jefferson held a four-point halftime lead, 14-10, after Hart County’s Tucker Kim connected on a 37-yard field goal with just 28 seconds left in the opening half.
Clark provided Jefferson’s two second-half touchdowns. He pushed his way in from two yards out on fourth-and-one for a touchdown with 9:38 left in the third quarter, upping the lead to 21-10. After Lee scored on a four-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 21-16 (a two-point try failed), Clark scored on his eight-yard run to give the Dragons a two-possession advantage.
“Our blocking was good,” Clark said of the team's running game. “Outside blockers, receivers, wings were all blocking good. Huge thanks to the line, too. They blocked amazingly.”
Clark’s second touchdown was set up with a long kickoff return by Levin Jones to the Dragon 48, giving Jefferson a short field with which to work.
“That was a huge play for us,” Cathcart said. “Levin is going to be an outstanding player.”
With the victory, Jefferson has won five straight games since dropping its season opener to Oconee County on Aug. 23. It also notched its fifth-straight win over the Bulldogs in this series.
Jefferson now moves ahead of Hart County in the region standings and hosts Morgan County Friday (Oct. 18) at Memorial Stadium.
Clark said the win over Hart County does nothing to change the way the team will approach its final three games.
“That doesn’t change anything,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re winning state. It doesn’t mean anything. We’ve still got to fight every game — play hard and work hard in every practice and in the weight room, every rep, every play. We’ve just got to keep on working and doing our thing.