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Tomcats Pioneer a late comeback: Defense keys win with big fourth-quarter plays

Oct. 28—ASHLAND — Both offenses had plenty to say at Putnam Stadium on Friday night.

It would be the Ashland defense that had the final word.

After 30 minutes of fast-paced possessions and a scoring surge on the scoreboard, the opposite side of the ball took over in the second half.

Simon Kenton and the Tomcats countered each other out of the gate and combined to score 70 points by halftime. Braxton Jennings's interception return for a touchdown provided the winning margin in a 49-42 victory for Ashland on senior night.

"It was the way they stepped up," Ashland coach Chad Tackett said about his team's second-half performance. "Our defensive assistants made some good adjustments at halftime. We gave up seven points after the half. I was proud of the way the kids battled. The pick-six by Braxton was a big play. I am proud of how they handled adversity."

The third quarter was the exact opposite of the prior two frames. It began with a missed field goal, two punts and a tip-drill interception in the end zone before the Pioneers grabbed the advantage again. Nathan Kitchens took advantage of a missed assignment in the Tomcats' secondary and found plenty of room to operate. Quarterback Brady Lee connected on a short pass and the wide-open Kitchens had a clear path for six points.

The final quarter told a different story. Ashland applied the pressure and grounded the Pioneers' air attack. Lee threw for 450 yards on 22 completions but started to feel the heat from the Tomcats' pass rush.

Senior Austin Nichols grabbed two key sacks in the fourth stanza. He was joined by senior Cole Christian on the second that helped keep Simon Kenton scoreless in the closing quarter.

"We were down two touchdowns (in the first half), and we just had to keep fighting," Nichols said. "We figured out at halftime what we needed to do and we executed it."

"We were just making small mistakes," he added. "We knew we would be playing through our defense. We just had to bring it more."

Tackett hoped a more concerted effort rushing the passer would disrupt the opponent's offense. He was right.

"We were trying to play more base in the first half because of the alignment and what we were trying to play upfront," Tackett said. "In the second half, we were able to open up our pressure package a little more and get some more heat on him."

Durell Turner entered the game as the leading rusher in Class 6A with 1,307 yards this season. The Simon Kenton junior had a productive first half but he became "a little dinged up," according to coach Roy Lucas, and he decided to keep him off the field in the final two quarters with the postseason seven days away. The Pioneers also lost a key lineman during the game.

"Losing him, it definitely made a difference," Lucas said. "We are not super deep on the offensive line. Jake (Puttoff) also plays defense. Those two things slowed us down some. "

After a Pioneers drive stalled inside the Ashland 10-yard line, Tay Thomas supercharged the final comeback and only needed one play to tie the game again. The back found a crease along the sideline and left the defenders in his rearview mirror as he sprinted 93 yards to the house.

It took just one snap for Jennings to provide a final spark. He jumped the route on a Lee pass and had no one in front of him when the junior returned for a touchdown.

Jennings has become a valuable receiver out of the backfield and showed off his pass-catching instincts on the decisive defensive play.

"He's a Division I recruit," Tackett said of Jennings. "He has really shown how versatile he is, not only as a runner, but as a passer. He and Tay played outstanding tonight. They got some great yards and had some big runs. On top of that, you have to give credit to LaBryant Strader and Brandon Houston. The connection that they have and they had a couple of big catches."

Simon Kenton (5-4) appeared to have a game-tying touchdown wrapped up on its final drive of regulation. Carter Blades was alone in the middle of the field after his defender slipped on the wet grass. He caught the pass, but as he crossed the 5-yard line, the ball squirted out of his grasp and the receiver fell on it at the 2.

The Pioneers would not get any closer. A penalty and a final quarterback sack sealed the victory as the defense rose to the occasion.

Nichols said the final result was a fitting end to his final regular-season home game.

"The atmosphere was unbelievable," Nichols said, "especially beating a 6A school. It's unreal.

"We didn't have the best week after the loss (at Johnson Central). But we know that we have to keep going. The playoffs are coming. We have fought through it and came out here with a win."

Ashland (9-1) knows how to use speed and athleticism to their advantage. Lucas felt the game would prepare his team next week.

"You have these nights," Lucas said. "Last week, it was a defensive battle with Ryle. Tonight, it went the other way. Obviously, we knew that Ashland has some great athletes. They have kids that can run. That's a good game for us. We play teams, especially in the playoffs with speed."

The two teams combined for 28 points in the first five minutes of the contest.

Jennings accounted for 188 total yards and four touchdowns—one defensive. Thomas ran for 185 yards on 10 totes and scored twice for the Tomcats.

Strader added 226 passing yards and a touchdown run. Dylan Duckwyler corraled his own tipped ball for an interception in the first half to give Ashland its first defensive stop of the game.

The Tomcats host Harrison County in the opening round of the Class 4A playoffs on Friday.

S. KENTON 21 14 7 0 — 42

ASHLAND 14 21 0 14 — 49

FIRST QUARTER

A—Tay Thomas 76 run (Jake Sexton kick), 11:36

SK—Tysin Weaver 37 pass from Brady Lee (Cole Garnett kick), 10:30

A—LaBryant Strader 10 run (Sexton kick), 9:44

SK—Lee 13 run (Garnett kick), 7:51

SK—Carson Blades 37 pass from Lee (Garnett kick), 2:48

SECOND QUARTER

SK—Lee 3 run (Garnett kick), 9:55

A—Braxton Jennings 3 run (Sexton kick), 7:32

A—Jennings 36 run (Sexton kick), 6:41

SK—Durell Turner 8 run (Garnett kick), 3:42

A—Jennings 6 run (Sexton kick), 1:25

THIRD QUARTER

SK—Nathan Kitchens 82 pass from Lee (Garnett kick), 2:49

FOURTH QUARTER

A—Tay Thomas 93 run (Sexton kick) 6:35

A—Jennings 27 interception return (Sexton kick), 6:24

SK A

First Downs 23 12

Rushes-Yards 49-150 27-267

Comp-Att-Int 22-35-2 7-16-1

Passing Yards 450 226

Fumbles-Lost 3-0 0-0

Punts-Avg. 1-40.0 4-31.0

Penalties-Yards 6-45 6-34

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

Simon Kenton rushing: Turner 23-103, Lee 12-37, Brown 3-9, Weaver 2 (minus-2), Oglesby 9-3.

Ashland rushing: Thomas 10-185, Ashby 1(minus-1), Davis 3-0, Jennings 11-73, Strader 2-10.

Simon Kenton passing: Lee 22 of 35 for 450 yards and two interceptions

Ashland passing: Strader 7 of 15 for 226 yards and an interception, Jennings 0 of 1 for 0 yards

Simon Kenton receiving: Blades 5-127, Kitchens 5-131, Harris 7-83, Weaver 4-95, Back 1-14.

Ashland receiving: Jennings 3-115, Adkins 1-9, Houston 3-102.