The John Hardin Bulldogs defense knew exactly what was coming.
With the ball inside the 1-yard line and time running out, there was only one person who was going to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line at Bulldog Stadium.
John Hardin just couldn’t keep Nelson County senior quarterback Paul Briney out of the end zone on fourth-and-goal Friday night. Briney scored on a 1-yard keeper with 4.7 seconds left, lifting the Cardinals to a 32-28 victory in a pivotal Class 4A, District 2 game.
“We felt like they were going to run the ball,” Bulldogs coach Doug Preston said. “We had the defensive call. We just reminded our outside people to watch the quarterback on a sneak out, and you’ve just got to push him back. But when the ball is that close, it’s tough. I know they got aided by the guys behind him pushing him, and we’re still trying to double check if that’s legal or illegal right now. But our kids fought our butts off. We made some mistakes at the end, but you live and learn.”
This was a huge game for John Hardin and Nelson County, which were meeting for the first time since 2010. The No. 2 seed and a home playoff game in the first round was on the line.
The Cardinals (6-3 overall, 3-1 district) snatched both from the jaws of defeat in the closing seconds, earning their first home playoff game since 2013. They will host Warren East, the No. 3 seed out of District 1, on Nov. 3.
“We’ll see whatever happens after that,” Nelson County coach Phillip Stockdale said.
The Bulldogs (4-5, 2-2), meanwhile, will go on the road in the first round to take on Logan County.
John Hardin nearly took the win in this one, rallying from a 25-15 deficit in the fourth quarter.
Junior wide receiver MJ Hayes turned a screen pass from sophomore quarterback Austin Richardson into a 19-yard touchdown with 7:42 left to pull within 25-22.
The Bulldogs regained the lead with 1:36 to play, when sophomore running back Cavalli Pittman weaved his way through the Cardinal defense for a 20-yard touchdown run. The point-after try was blocked, making it 28-25.
“Our kids have had some tough times the past few years. This year has been better, but our kids will fight to the end,” Preston said. “I was confident because of the way our quarterback started to develop and Cavalli was having a heck of a night. When you’ve got kids making plays, I felt like we had a chance to get down there and score.”
At halftime, the coach told his players if they could score on the opening drive, they would win.
“We scored, and so we had our chance to win,” Preston said. “The kids believed and played hard, but you’ve got to take your hat off (Nelson County). They made some big plays.”
It was an emotional play for John Hardin, which was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after Cavalli’s touchdown. That meant the Bulldogs were backed up 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff, giving the Cardinals a shorter field to work with on their final drive.
The drive started to stall, but Briney connected with junior wide receiver Nick Nalley on a long pass to move Nelson County inside the red zone with less than a minute left.
A few plays later, the Cardinals were faced with fourth-and-goal from the 1 and Stockdale called a timeout. Stockdale asked his players who wanted the ball in their hands on that play, and Briney’s linemen and running backs said it should be him.
He plunged over the goal line with less than 5 seconds left, bringing his team back from the brink of defeat.
Both teams are back in action Friday night to wrap up the regular season.
Nelson County plays at Spencer County at 7:30 p.m., while John Hardin plays at DeSales at 7:30 p.m.