BENTON — Of the 163 games that opened the TSSAA football season the past three nights only eight were settled by two points or less — none more exciting than the one Friday evening at the Larry Davis Football Complex.
The “Backyard Brawl V” came down to a touchdown pass as time ran out and a big hit to stop the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, giving Polk County a 29-27 decision for its first-ever victory over Bradley Central in Benton.
“What a game,” declared Wildcat head coach Derrick Davis afterward. “I’m so happy for these kids, especially the seniors. They had lost the last three times to Bradley and this was their last shot. It means so much to start the season with a win like this, but we’ve still got a lot of football to go.”
It was no secret the Big Red Train was going to come rolling down the track behind a full head of steam from all-state power runner Zach Miller and the 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior didn’t disappoint the Polk fans, carrying the ball 36 times for 181 yards and two scores, plus he caught a TD pass and even threw a 10-yard completion.
“It’s one thing to know what’s coming, but it’s something else to try to stop it,” declared Bradley head coach Damon Floyd. “We didn’t come up with the right scheme to stop him (Miller) and that’s on me. We didn’t do a good job of tackling tonight, plus his (Miller) second-effort was tremendous. He broke a lot of tackles. We also had some penalties at crucial times that really hurt us as well.”
After the hosts dominated the opening two quarters and led 14-0 at the intermission. The Bears came roaring back in the second half with a pair of quick touchdowns to even the score, but Polk went back up by a couple of TDs, plus a gutsy two-point conversion call, and then held off a late charge by the visitors to secure the win.
“We’ll enjoy this win this weekend, then we’ve got to get ready for the next game,” expressed coach Davis.
The Wildcats will now prepare for a trip to Chattanooga Central Friday evening, to face a Purple Pounder team that got past Franklin County 18-9 in its opener.
Bradley will host Murfreesboro Riverdale in its home opener Friday. The Warriors got blasted 41-7 by arch-rival Oakland Thursday evening.
“We’re not going to lay down and quit,” declared coach Floyd. “We’re going to keep grinding and prepare as hard as we can for Riverdale. Very few teams are going to go undefeated and there’s a lot of season remaining.”
Polk County chewed up the clock with a combined 28 plays as it scored on its first two possessions Friday. Although known as a power-running team, the Wildcats stunned the visitors with a 42-yard pass completion from senior QB Josh Sillas to classmate Devin Weber on the game’s first snap.
Eight plays later Miller “bulled” in from the 7 yard line for his first score of the night. After sophomore Reno Wimberley booted the first of three extra-points, Big Red led 7-0 at the 7:15 mark of the opening frame.
Bradley got a pair of first downs on its first three offensive plays, but the second one was wiped out by a holding penalty and two plays later Gatlin Lanning got the first of four Wildcat sacks on the evening to stall the Bear drive at midfield.
On the third play after taking possession on its own 19, Polk popped a halfback pass by senior Chris Wimberley to classmate Corey Swallows for a 26-yard gain to move the ball into Bradley territory.
Six plays later and facing a fourth-and-2 situation, the ’Cats went back into their bag of tricks with Miller taking a direct snap, but instead of running, he pulled up and fired a 10-yard bullet to Lanning.
Miller converted another fourth-and-2 play a few moments later to keep the drive alive and then caught a three-yard pass from Sillas for the game’s second score with 6:59 on the first half clock.
Bradley got a break later in the quarter when a punt bounced off the Wildcat return man’s chest and was recovered by senior Drew Roark. The Bears moved across midfield with a 24-yard pass from transfer QB Brett Standifer to senior Cal Pickel, but on the very next play Chris Wimberley made his second knock away of the contest and the ball ricocheted backwards 10 yards and into the arms of Polk defensive lineman Matthew Hammons for an interception.
After putting up just 52 yards of total offense, countered by drawing four flags for 29 yards, in the opening 24 minutes, Bradley came out after the intermission with a renewed determination.
Taking the second half kickoff, the Bears put together an 11-play, 69-yard drive with Standifer throwing his first TD pass for the Black-and-Gold on a six-yard connection with sophomore Tyler Carpenter. Senior Clayton Steels tacked on the first of his three extra-point kicks with 6:45 left in the frame.
After forcing a three-and-out, the Bears needed just two plays to even the score as Standifer hooked up with Pickel, who made a leaping catch over a defender at the goal line on a 43-yard scoring toss. Steels knotted the game at 14-all with 3:56 on the third quarter clock.
Polk was once again held to a three-and-out on the ensuing series, but on the second play after the Bears regained possession a pass went through a receiver’s hands and was picked off by Weber at the Bradley 37.
After a 17-yard burst by Miller and a 14-yard reverse by Chris Wimberley, Miller powered in from two-yards out on the second play of the final quarter. An offside penalty on Bradley negated a good extra-point kick and moved the ball to the 1 1/2 yard line, leading to a gutsy call.
“The other coaches talked me into going for two,” admitted coach Davis. “If we made it, it put extra pressure on Bradley, but if we didn’t it could have cost us big.” The ’Cat coaches put the ball in Miller’s hands and there was never a doubt.
After a trio of big defensive plays — a knock away by Weber and back-to-back sacks by Tanner Plemons, plus one where Lanning and Plemons combined — Polk forced another Bear punt.
The Wildcats seemed to put the icing on the cake with an eight-play scoring drive, capped by a one-yard sneak by Sillas and another good PAT boot from the younger Wimberley.
Down 15 points with just over four minutes to go in the contest, Bradley wasn’t ready to concede, needing just 33 seconds to score as Standifer connected with Pickel for 16 yards, senior Logan Fetzner for 18 and pre-season all-state wide out Dee Crisp for the final 20 yards. Steels was true on the PAT kick with 3:32 to go.
Polk tried to chew up the rest of the clock, but after giving up one first down, the Bear defense forced a final punt.
Taking over on its own 48 with just 51.6 seconds remaining, Standifer and junior Daniel Clark connected on a 24-yard pass. After an incomplete pass, Fetzner caught a swing pass for an eight-yard gain, but couldn’t get out of bounds, forcing Standifer to spike the ball to stop the clock.
Facing a fourth-and-2 in the 21 yard line, Standifer scrambled for a 19-yard gain to move the ball to the 2 yard line with just 3.2 ticks remaining. With one last chance as the clock ran out, Standifer fired a pass to Crisp in the front corner of the end zone and the 6-foot-2 senior fought off double coverage to make the catch.
Down by a pair (thanks to the earlier decision by the Polk coaching staff), Bradley had no choice but to go for the two-point conversion. Standifer looked for a receiver in the end zone, but then dumped the ball off to Fetzner, who was immediately met by thundering hit by Lanning, who was joined by Weber to bring him down before reaching the goal line.
“Our defensive backs did a great job — very aggressive when the ball was in the air and made some big hits,” praised coach Davis. “We really played hard all night. I have to admit, I didn’t see this type of effort coming with the way some of our practices went this week, but the kids rose to the occasion and played their hearts out.”
“This (renewing the series against Bradley) has been great for the excitement in the communities the last five years,” he added. “I’m just glad we could finally give them a good game after they beat us pretty good the last three years.”
The overall series between now stands at 25-8-1, with Polk winning the first game in 1917 before the vast majority of the games were played between 1924-59. Bradley won back-to-back games in the late 1980s, but the Wildcats took the victory in 2009. Before 2010 all the games had been played in Cleveland.
Polk County ran 60 offensive plays for 311 yards Friday evening with Miller touching the ball in 42 of them as he had 194 total yards and three scores, plus he averaged 32 yards on four punts.
Bradley put together 277 yards of offense with Standifer completing 13-of-22 passes for 198 yards and four touchdowns. Pickel caught four passes for 95 yards and a score, while Crisp hauled in a trio of passes, two for TDs. Fetzner had 10 touches (seven rushes, three receptions) for a total of 71 yards.