By Dan Callahan
Roanoke– Pulaski County’s football team rolled over Hidden Valley Saturday evening on the road in Roanoke, 42-24, and the impressive victory allowed the team to accomplish its first main goal of the season, qualify for the VHSL 4A West Region Playoffs.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Cougar head coach Stephen James.. “It’s not our only goal, but it’s the first one, and we’re going back to the playoffs. So goal number one has been accomplished, and to get the other goals, we need to continue to work hard, and this team has the ability to get better, but it was a happy locker room tonight, a good scene. I’m proud of our kids,” said James.
A lot of good things happened during the game for Pulaski County. The offensive line was more dominant, quarterback Bryant Grubb had a very solid game, Hunter Thomas moved to just 112 yards away from the career rushing record at PCHS after galloping for 215 at Hidden Valley, and he only broke one big one. It was a night of work for Thomas.
More good things. It was the finest hour for the Cougar defensive secondary. It turned a 68% passer into a 34% passer, picked him off twice, and turned one pick into six. The Cougar defense came up with three big turnovers, and blocked a punt. Production came from all areas on the field.
“We gave up more yards rushing that we like to, but we felt that was a good trade off considering the offensive package we needed to defend. Hidden Valley has qualify people at quarterback, wide receiver, and tailback, and we had some decisions to make in how we were going to defend. It resulted in them gaining more yards rushing to you would like, but it was the best way for us to defend, and I think we did a pretty good job. It was the best game of the season for our secondary,” said James.
James felt like he could see good things building up in practice during the week. “The kids seems to like our ideas about how to play Hidden Valley. We had a very good week of practice. Our preparation was good. Hidden Valley is not easy to defend, but we made big plays, didn’t let them sustain drives, and then we turned around and drove it on them. We didn’ t turn the ball over. Now we just need to build from this. Everybody is aware we play Salem at home next Friday, and then we’ll see what we have entering the playoffs. It’s an exciting time, but again, this team can get better at the best time,” said James.
The big plays started coming early for Pulaski County. The Titans lined up in a short punt formation that indicated a possible fake, but Jonah Fitzgerald bobbled the snap, couldn’t get the punt off, was knocked down and the ball rolled free. Simon Leinauer recovered for the Cougars at the HV 18. Four plays later Thomas scored from the three. The pat was missed for a 6-0 lead.
The Titans retaliated immediately, driving with the kickoff and scoring on a 12-yard pass from Fitzgerald to Ryan Mitchell on a well executed play. Mike Driscoll hit the conversion kick and quickly the Cougars were down, 7-6. But not for long. Dontay Brown returned the kickoff to the 31. On first down Pulaski County popped Thomas clean down the gut on a trap play, Thomas blitzed through the hole, cut toward the right sideline and Titan defenders had their hands extended trying to get hold of Thomas, but the Cougar “pocket rocket” pulled away and zipped 69 yards to paydirt. Jamall Edmonds powered over for the two-point conversion, and the Cougars were quickly back on top, 14-7 and there was still 4:39 left on the clock in the first quarter.
But the Cougars were just getting cranked up. A seven-play drive resulted in Thomas scoring from three yards out and Castle’s extra point kick made it, 21-7. Driscoll answered back with a 33-yard field goal for the Titans, but that was not a good enough response, nobody was beating Pulaski Co. this night with threes. Midway in the second quarter the Cougars began a nine-play march and Edmonds powered through the HV defense from the one. Castle’s kick make it, 28-10 and it appeared the Cougars were gaining control of the proceedings.
But then things changed quickly again, and Pulaski County flat out took control of the game. Fitzgerald was back to pass and tried to hit a receiver on a quick slanting pattern, but Fitzgerald’s pass was a bit high, and a little behind, but it appeared to skip off the receiver’s hands and Cougar cornerback Kellen Dalton snatched it out of the air and turned it into a quick pick six as he zipped untouched 56 yards to the end zone, and the big defensive play put the Cougars in control at the half, 35-10.
The third quarter was a bit sluggish for the Cougars. “They really packed the box on us, and were basically sending nine at us,” said James, “but our concern was running the clock and ending the game as fast as we could. We’ve already lost some rest and preparation time for Salem because of playing on Saturday night, but after a couple of possessions, we needed to switch things up a bit and get the game settled.” That’s exactly what happened.
Fitzgerald faked out the Cougar defense and scored from 16 yards out, but the next two possessions ended any hope HV might have had. The Cougars started from their own 10 following the kickoff and drove relentlessly down the field, didn’t really break anything big, but just racked up first downs. The drive carried into the fourth quarter before Edmonds scored from five yards out. Castle’s conversion made the score, 42-19 with just 7:19 left to play.
Still, the Titans kept trying and Fitzgerald began using his feet instead of his arm, and scored on a two-yard run, but there was only 5:01 left to play, and with the score at 42-24, the Pulaski County offense keep the football for nine more plays and bleed the clock of most of its time. In desperation Fitzgerald tried to throw deep down the middle, and Dontay Brown snatched it out of the air for the Cougars and set sail for the end zone. He was tackled at the Hidden Valley one, but with plenty of time still left on the clock to score, James told his offense to touch a knee to the ground twice and the game ended, a huge victory, easily the biggest win of the season for Pulaski County.
Hidden Valley actually outgained the Cougars, but much of the reason for that was the Cougar defense gave its offense excellent field position, the Titans took some chances that backfired, Dalton’s touchdown took away an offensive possession, Leinauer’s recovery of the botched punt resulted in a three-play possession, and Thomas’ 69-yard blitz resulted in a one down possession, so it’s easy to see why the Titans had more snaps in the game, 69-51.
Cason Bennett, a determined running back for Hidden Valley, had a fine game, rushing for 182 yards on 31 carries, and he was the biggest weapon this night for the Titans as the Cougar secondary shut down the Titan’s potent passing game. Fitzgerald came into the game almost a 68% passer on the season, but finished just 9-26 with the two picks for 120 yards, easily his biggest disappointment of the season. His leading receiver was Ryan Mitchell who caught five for 85 yards, but Bryant Grubb was in Michell’s hip pocket most of the game. Two of his catches were tremendous efforts, nothing came easy for Mitchell with Grubb in his face mask the entire game. Fitzgerald became more of a runner with 91 yards on 11 carries. The Titans finished with 273 yards rushing, 120 passing, and 393 total yards.
Pulaski County actually gained less, had the ball less, but more importantly, scored a lot more. The Cougars ran for 288 yards on 45 attempts, and Grubb was four of six passing for 44 yards, and a 332 total yard effort, but sprinkle in the big plays in the secondary on defense, a fumble recovery by inside linebacker Reymon Williams, and the Leinauer recovery of the blocked punt, and it all made contributions to putting lights on the scoreboard.
This was go night for Pulaski County. This victory needed to happen. In many ways, this was the biggest game of the regular season because of needing it for the playoffs. Thomas had his most carriers of the season with 29 that went for 215, and he also had some snaps as a member of the secondary. Grubb spent very little time on the bench and put in a serious night’s work. The Cougar quarterback ran five times for 30 yards and his four of six passing effort was good for another 44. Edmonds finished with 24 yards on six runs and scored two touchdowns and a two-point pat. Thomas scored three touchdowns. Dontay Brown ran twice for 11 yards, caught two passes for 20, and had his interception in a solid effort.
Next up for the Cougars? That would be Salem in Dobson Stadium Friday. Pulaski County is now 7-2 on the season, the Spartans 8-1 and on an eight-game winning streak, but such things often do not matter in this rivalry. Hidden Valley closes it season against neighborhood rival Cave Spring, the Titans are now 4-5.