LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Quarterback J.D. Gray saved his best performance of the season for the regional semifinals, but it took even more for Crittenden County to pull off a gripping 31-27 victory Friday at Louisville Holy Cross.
Gray rushed for a season-high 177 yards and became just the third player in school history to gain more than 3,000 in a career. Suspecting that ninth-ranked Holy Cross couldn't stop his versatile playmaker, Rocket coach Al Starnes called Gray's number on 23 rushing plays – the senior's most carriers in a single game this year.
To punctuate his rushing effort, Gray added a punt return for a touchdown, 111 yards on kickoff and punt returns and completed 7-of-9 passes for 39 yards. He also rushed for one touchdown.
"It was evident J.D. was the one we were going to," said coach Al Starnes, who picked up his first road playoff victory in 11 tries. "We didn't feel like Holy Cross could shut him down the whole time. We wanted to put the ball in his hands, and he was big for us."
Despite Gray's splendid performance, it took a few gut-wrenching plays late in the contest for the sixth-ranked Rockets to prevail and earn their second straight trip to the Class A First Region championship game. Crittenden plays at Mayfield next week, squaring off against the same team it beat for last year's regional title.
Holy Cross used a big play or two, and some special teams extras to make the semifinal game closer than most had predicted. The Second District champion Cougars played with ferocious intensity most of the contest, and led 27-24 after a Matt Hans' 80-yard punt return with just under four minutes to play.
"I have to give them a lot of credit, they never backed down. When we got up on them, they never laid down," said Starnes. "It was two hard-nosed teams battling it out the very end."
Crittenden jumped ahead 18-7 at the half, but Holy Cross took the tempo back in the third period, running between its tackles to establish a firm running attack and going ahead twice in the second half thanks in part to an interception returned for 44 yards and the long punt return.
Starnes had said going into the game that special teams could make the difference. They almost did for Holy Cross. Consider that the Cougars scored nine points on special teams while Crittenden posted seven. Figure, too, the Rockets at minus-five on point-after attempts and the scales weighed heavily in the host's favor.
"I thought we needed to score off special teams, but special teams are more than that," Starnes said. "It's the kicking game that determines field position. We didn't do as good a job as we needed to, but D.T. (Dyllan Thornton) made a big play by blocking their last extra-point kick then he came on an kicked one for us after we scored," said Starnes.
Indeed, Thornton's play loomed large when Crittenden clung to a four-point lead as Holy Cross moved deep in Rocket territory in the waning seconds. The Cougars got some convenient calls on their final drive, including a face mask and pass interference penalty. Those infractions alone moved Holy Cross down the field and left it with one extra play even after time had expired. Due to the face mask penalty, the hosts got one last shot from the Rocket 12, but senior Dyllan Clark had Holy Cross quarterback Cameron Scott in his grasp as he misfired on a final pass.
For Clark it was fitting retribution for a couple of earlier penalties that cost his team dearly in the field position battle.
"That just shows how the kids never quit. Dylan was out there with cramps, but he kept pressure on the quarterback at the end," Starnes said. "Everybody stepped it up there at the end and dug down deep to stop them."
Although Gray was in the spotlight most of the game, his backfield and receivers made big plays when the Rockets needed them. Andrew Freeman – coming off a career game a week earlier – didn't get a touch until the fourth period. Yet when he finally got the ball, the junior rushed for a 13-yard touchdown and caught a big 14-yard pass on second-and-long that took Crittenden to the Cougar two, setting up the game-winning touchdown.
The final score was carried across the goal line by Brian Berry as the Rockets went to the power-I with Devin Wallace and Freeman as the blocking backs. Following the touchdown, Critenden placekicker J.R. Adams – who had struggled the entire game – missed the point-after, but Holy Cross was whistled for roughing the kicker. Starnes opted to let Thornton try the next one and he split the uprights, giving his team an important four-point advantage.
"It was clear that (Adams) was upset with himself," Starnes said about the kicker, who has been battling a groin injury the last couple of weeks which has hurt his consistency. "So we didn't want to put him in that situation again."
Thornton, the longsnapper, was relieved by Bowe Wallace at center then took care of kicking the PAT himself.
"That meant they had to get a touchdown at the end. A field goal wouldn't do them any good," Starnes said. "That was important."
Pictured at top inset is quarterback J.D. Gray rushing for part of his 177 yards.
Directly above is coach Al Starnes celebrating with his team the first road playoff victory in his tenure.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Crittenden County 12 6 0 13
Louisville Holy Cross 7 0 14 6
CC-J.D. Gray 58 run (kick failed) 5:28, 1st
CC-Brian Berry 5 run (pass failed) 2:42, 1st
HC-Jesse Keen 68 run (Shane Miles kick) 1:07, 1st
CC-Gray 55 punt return (run failed) 7:43, 2nd
HC-Matt Hans 13 run (run failed) 2:33, 3rd
HC-Austin Harlow 44 interception return (Greg Johnson run) :05, 3rd
CC-Andrew Freeman 13 run (kick failed) 8:43, 4th
HC-Hans 80 punt return (kick blocked) 3:52, 4th
CC-Berry 1 run (Dyllan Thornton kick) :32, 4th
First Downs: Crittenden 11, Holy Cross 10
Penalties: Crittenden 9-67, Holy Cross 5-30
Rushing: Crittenden 39-278, Holy Cross 39-184
Passing: Crittenden 7-9-1, 39 yds., Holy Cross 4-10-0, 53 yds.
Total Yards: Crittenden 317, Holy Cross 237
Fumles/Lost: Crittenden 3-2, Holy Cross 4-3
Rushing: Crittenden-Gray 23-177, Berry 9-55, Freeman 5-29, Tanner Nix 2-17. Holy Cross-Keen 8-89, Hans 12-49, Johnson 9-35, Cameron Scott 8-11.
Passing: Crittenden-Gray 7-9-1, 39 yds. Holy Cross-Scott 4-10-0, 53 yds.
Receiving: Crittenden-Dylan Clark 2-14, Nix 2-11, Freeman 1-14, Berry 1-0.
Defense: Bebout solo, assist; A.Berry 7 solos, assist, 3 TFL, caused fumble; B.Berry 2 solos, assist; Clark 10 solos, 3 assists, 2 TFL, sack, 2 fumble recoveries; Collins solo, 5 assists; Copeland assist; Cudnik 2 solos, 2 assists, caused fumble; Fletcher 7 solos, 7 assists, TFL; Freeman 3 solos, 5 assists, blocked punt; Gray 4 solos, assist; Kirk 2 solos, caused fumble; Nix solo, assist; Price assist; Thornton 6 solos, 8 assists, fumble recovery, blocked kick;
B.Wallace assist; D.Wallace 3 solos; Werne 4 solos, assist, TFL.
Records: Crittenden 10-2, Holy Cross 6-6