Gritty effort

SCHS football coach Jim McKee rallies the team after it fell behind 10-0 in Friday's playoff game at Frederick Douglass. The Cardinals fought hard but fell, 24-14, ending their season.

LEXINGTON - Frederick Douglass wasn’t five touchdowns better than Scott County on Friday night. 

Nerves, turnovers, penalties and cold weather all conspired to make the Class 5A district championship game a typical playoff donnybrook that bore little resemblance to that regular-season rout seven weeks ago.

SC did enough things well and accepted ample, uncharacteristic gifts from Douglass to have a puncher’s chance. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they returned the favor too many times and saw their season end in a 24-14 defeat. 

“We had a conglomerate of mistakes,” SC coach Jim McKee said. “We fumbled a snap, which we hadn’t done in 11 games. We jumped offside. They kept us in the bad field position hole after that.”

Three drives started on the Scott County 1-yard line, two after coffin corner punts and one thanks to Bronson Brown’s fumble recovery that spared an early touchdown.

It was a bridge too far against the Broncos (12-0), whose nine shutouts this season included a 36-0 whitewashing of the Cards on Sept. 28.

Two touchdown runs from senior quarterback Cade McKee and a much more effective night by Brown and Philip Garner, each of whom gained 79 yards, kept that history from repeating itself.

“That’s playoff football. That’s this defense,” Douglass coach Brian Landis said. “You’ve got to win with defense this time of year, and we did that.”

Big plays put the Broncos over the top, giving them their first playoff triumph over the Cardinals in three tries.

Douglass QB Josh McClurg broke the ice on an 82-yard run in the first quarter. Devin Neal squirmed loose for two long scores, a 49-yard catch-and-scoot from McClurg in the second period and a 26-yard ramble in the fourth.

Two teams that combined for more than 1,000 points this season mostly struggled to move the ball in the frosty, win-or-else conditions. Douglass (282) owned a slight edge over Scott County (235) in total yardage and had three takeaways to the Cards’ two.

“Hats off to our defensive guys and the whole defensive staff,” McKee said. “Our defense kept us in the game. We had every opportunity once we made it 10-7 and just didn’t seal the deal.”

SC set a different tone this time out of the gate, with Brown (twice) and Jaxon Saylor picking up first downs and taking the Cards across midfield on their opening drive.

Another productive sweep by Saylor dug Scott County out of a penalty-created hole and set up fourth-and-7 at the 36. The Cards fumbled the exchange there, and Ramarcus Thompson fell on it as a formality.

“Just playing disciplined football. Read your keys. Have a great plan going into it,” Landis said of Douglass’ success twice this season against SC’s vaunted Wing-T. “And give a lot of credit to our kids. They executed the plan the way they were supposed to, and this is what happens when you do that.”

Austin Taylor immediately punched back for SC, stripping the ball directly from McClurg’s hands on a keeper and returning it to the Douglass 31.

A false start, followed by another botched snap and Bronco pickup, drained the air from that opportunity.

“The bottom line is we didn’t get it done,” McKee said. “We had two great opportunities to take the lead early in the game. We obviously needed to punch it in early, but boy, we fought hard.”

McClurg’s run made that turnover sting. 

Then, after the Cards went three-and-out, McClurg appeared to make it 14-0 when he found explosive sophomore Dane Key in the open field. The ball squirted loose just shy of the goal line, with Brown making the alert recovery. 

SC couldn’t connect on three deep balls and was forced to punt from its own end zone. A personal foul on the return set up Douglass splendidly inside the SC 15, but two combined tackles for loss by Colton Combs and Alberto Campos forced the Broncos to settle for a 32-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead on the final play of the first quarter.

Thwarted by a goal-line stand at almost the same point in the game while facing a similar two-score deficit in the previous meeting, SC met those same demons when the Douglass defense tightened after two long gains by Garner and Brown.

McKee’s bootleg on third-and-goal from the 3 finally put SC in company with Tates Creek and Lexington Catholic as the only teams to score against Douglass this season.

“Honestly I felt really good coming into the regular-season game,” Jim McKee said. “I had no thought that we would get beat 36-0. And I felt really good coming into the game (Friday).”

The celebration was short-lived. 

Cornered for an apparent loss after a dump-off from McClurg on second-and-6 from just inside midfield, Neal made three Cards miss and found a seam down the home sideline.

“We fought extremely hard. Our defense played great again,” McKee said. “They had the long one long run by the quarterback. They had the other long run, which was on the swing pass. We had him dead for a loss, and he just broke away.”

It stayed 17-7 for nearly two full quarters of game time before Neal’s second TD of the night. The Cards’ bench and fans were aghast that no flag was thrown for holding on the play.

Hopes all but dashed, Scott County still strung together an 11-play, 69-yard scoring drive in reply. Hard runs by Garner converted both a third and a fourth down on the march. McKee capped the sequence and snuck it in with 3:13 on the clock.

Neal covered the ensuing onside kick, which SC illegally touched before it traveled the necessary 10 yards, anyhow.

It sealed Scott County’s earliest playoff exit since a 2014 second-round loss to Meade County. The Cards reached the 6A state semifinals in 2016 (Lafayette) and 2017 (St. Xavier) before getting to the championship game (Male) last fall.

Douglass probably is the best team to knock out the Cards in recent years.

“They’re not as good as the 2011 and ’12 Trinity teams. Those are the best teams we’ve ever played,” McKee said. “But they’re that talented across the board. I don’t want our guys to ever feel like this season was a disappointment. That’s a really good football team from a talent standpoint. They’ve got five guys who have legit Division I offers. We don’t have any.”

What SC did have were 30 seniors and a tradition-ric,h fighting spirit.

“We had a great year. We beat seven teams by a running clock,” McKee said. “We’re not going to hang our heads. We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We had a great year, end of story. We’re going to enjoy having a 10-2 year.

“They’re a good group of kids. Hopefully they’ll look back and realize they had a great career. They were 10-0 as freshmen, 8-0 as JV players. We were in the state championship game when they were juniors, and their senior year we won 10 games and lost to a team that’s extremely talented.”

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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