For Central Hardin fans who truly know high school football, they may have thought Kevin Kelley had been summoned Friday night to Bruin Field.
Kelley, who was a legendary prep coach in Arkansas, had been dubbed The Coach Who Never Punts, regardless of where his team was at on the field.
That mantra was taken up by Christian County in the opening round of the Class 6A UK Healthcare Sports Medicine state playoffs.
Like Kelley, the Colonels refused to punt, beginning the game by going for it on fourth down inside their 20-yard line on their first two possessions.
The strategy failed, as Central Hardin used the first over-on-downs possession to score and use that early momentum as impetus for a 60-0 victory.
Perhaps the only people surprised by the no-punt tactics might have been the Bruin fans, because the Central Hardin players were prepared for it.
“We watched the film and knew exactly what they were going to do,” said Central Hardin senior Walker Meredith, who was a personal nightmare for Christian County on both sides of the ball and on special teams. “Not sure why they do it, but we were ready for it.”
Senior teammate Caden Elmore, who set the school record for interceptions with a late pick, agreed with Meredith, saying, “maybe they just don’t have a punter.”
“We knew that was part of their game plan, so it was up to the defense to take advantage,” Elmore said. “When we had them pinned deep, we had to step up because that was going to be a huge advantage for us.”
The defense did its job, stopping the Colonels on a fourth-and-14 situation on the opening series to take over from the Christian County 18-yard line.
Bruin senior quarterback Zakery Spurrier would demonstrate later how to be successful on fourth down, hitting junior running back Jaxon Engstrand on a 7-yard touchdown pass. Senior running back Noah Payton ran in the 2-point conversion for an 8-0 lead and Central Hardin never looked back.
Christian County, which entered the game 2-8 and having struggled all year, continued to press on fourth down to no avail. The Colonels were successful in only one of seven fourth down situations. The other possessions ended in two interceptions, a fumble and the end of the first half, which marked the start of the running clock.
“That’s been their M.O. (modus operandi) most of the year and especially the last few games,” said Central Hardin coach Tim Mattingly. “I think they figured they had nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain. That’s all fine and dandy if you are successful with it. The way we played defense tonight never made it become an issue.”
The defense was stellar, never allowing Christian County to threaten the red zone. The Colonels’ deepest penetration was the Central Hardin 36-yard line in the second quarter and that drive ended on fourth down.
The Bruins surrendered 23 rushing yards and 111 yards through the air.
“The game plan was to win the game at the line of scrimmage,” said Payton, a linebacker who helped spearhead the defense with two sacks. “We wanted to come out and smack them in the mouth. We knew they had some pretty good athletes who could make plays. We were able to take away a lot of what they wanted to do.”
The Central Hardin offense countered the defensive effort, getting huge efforts from Meredith and Engstrand en route to setting a school record for points scored.
Meredith had scoring runs of 55 and 26 yards and added a 2-point conversion. And when Christian County decided to put a foot on the ball with the opening kickoff of the second half, he burned the Colonels for an 85-yard scoring return. On the play, he threaded his way through several tacklers near his 45-yard line, found some daylight at midfield and broke away untouched over the final 40 yards for the touchdown.
“Early on I thought I was going to have a pretty quiet game,” said Meredith, who had only 19 yards before his 55-yard scoring burst started the running clock with 1:29 left in the second quarter. “But when I got that first one, I thought, here we go. This could be a good night after all.”
Meredith followed with his kick return to open the second half and ended his seven-carry, 109-yard rushing night when he took an inside reverse and bolted 26 yards to score on the final play of the third quarter.
Engstrand scored twice, opening the game with his 7-yard reception and adding a 2-yard run up the middle to make it 31-0 in the second period.
Mason Gardner scored on a 3-yard run for the second touchdown and Spurrier hit McKay Payton on a 35-yard pass for a 24-0 advantage. Gage Gergely added the final score on an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Micah Cheanault kicked for point after touchdowns. Omar Marreez and Tucker Walters scored on 2-point conversions, with Walters, a senior lineman by trade, providing a moment of huge celebration when he ran in the final two points to set the school record.
The game ended fittingly when Elmore snatched his 13th career interception to set the school record. The moment was extra satisfying considering Elmore was injured in the season opener and wasn’t sure if he football career would continue after experiencing severe internal bleeding.
“It felt great to get the record especially when it helped get us a playoff win,” said Elmore, who soared over the receiver, high pointed the ball, pinned it against his body and followed with a 20-yard run. “This is actually my third game back, which is sooner than anybody thought it would be, if ever. It feels good to be back on the field.”