By Steve Williams
The football teams of Knoxville Catholic and Nashville Pearl-Cohn had much in common record-wise coming into the BlueCross Bowl Class 4A state championship game. Both had overcome 2-4 starts with eight straight wins to reach the finals with identical 10-4 records.
It didn’t take long, however, to see a big difference in the two.
The Firebirds had one big play early, but the Fighting Irish answered with numerous big plays on offense and defense in romping to a 48-8 victory Saturday night at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium in Cookeville.
“We’re proud of our guys,” said Catholic head coach Steve Matthews after being doused with a little water as the final seconds ticked off the clock to end his team’s comeback to the title. “We got off to a rough start this season, but they showed a ton of resiliency.”
The title game was like a microcosm of Catholic’s season. The Irishmen fell behind, and then went on a roll.
Catholic junior quarterback Chase Cunningham was named the game’s Offensive Most Valuable Player as he passed for 179 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another. Senior teammate Austin Rowan was the Defensive MVP with six tackles, three assists, 1½ sacks and four tackles for loss.
Amari Rodgers was a three-way performer for the Irish as he returned a kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown, caught a TD pass and stood out defensively with six tackles and an interception.
Jeffery Wood led a strong rushing attack for the champs as he gained 116 yards on 10 carries and scored two touchdowns.
Chase Kuerschen was Catholic’s leading receiver with four catches for 93 yards and a TD.
A smothering Irish defense totaled 15 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
“It’s hard to tell if it was our best overall game of the season,” said Matthews. “I know we haven’t run the ball as well as Wood and (Joshua) Brown (75 yards on 15 carries) did, and hat’s off to the offensive line and receivers for their blocking.
“They knew we could throw the ball. To also run the ball like that makes us really hard to stop.”
Pearl-Cohn jumped out to an early lead when Jimmyrious Parker broke away at the line of scrimmage and raced 91 yards to score. Jimmy Ferrell’s 2-point pass to Darius Hunter made it 8-0 midway through the opening quarter.
Parker’s big run didn’t faze the Irishmen.
“This team has been in all types of game situations this season and fought back,” said Matthews. “There was no panic. They believed in the plan and felt execution would create opportunities for us.”
Rodgers returned the ensuing kickoff all the way, crossing the entire field and speeding into the end zone for his 30th touchdown of the season. Jake Poczobut kicked the first of six PATs to pull the Irish within one.
Wood capped an 8-play, 48-yard march, running straight ahead from seven yards out, as Catholic went ahead 14-8.
Cameron Blakely hauled in a 7-yard fade pass from Cunningham to make it 21-8 with 9:38 remaining in the second quarter.
The Irish defense quickly got the ball back as Cade Mays stripped it loose and Jones Albritton recovered the fumble at the Firebirds’ 39. Catholic cashed in as Cunningham passed 43 yards to Rodgers to make it 28-8.
Pearl-Cohn, facing fourth-and-one at the Catholic 48, went for a first down, but Ferrell was stopped by Morgan East for no gain. That was just one of East’s team-high seven tackles.
Brown picked his way through traffic on a 22-yard run to give Catholic a first-and-goal at the 8 on its next possession. But the Irish failed to score this time as Poczobut missed a 24-yard field goal.
Cunningham hit Kuerschen with a 34-yard touchdown pass to increase Catholic’s lead to 35-8 late in the half.
In the third quarter, Wood slipped out of a tackle and scampered 18 yards to paydirt to make it 41-8. Cunningham sneaked across the goal line from one yard out to make it 48-8 and start a running clock with 4:26 to go in the third.
Sophomore QB Jack Sompayrac, returning from a broken arm, finished up as Matthews entered several substitutes.
Augustus Fortune also had seven tackles for Catholic, while Albritton had two tackles, two assists, one sack and assisted on a TFL.