Sparked by the return of junior back Austin Caldwell, the Bell County running game took over in the second half on Friday as the Bobcats pulled away for a 34-6 win over Elizabethtown in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs.
Caldwell, who had missed the last two games of the regular season with sprained ankle, ran for 228 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries to lead the way.
“Austin is the heart and soul as far as getting this team going. Our kids feed off him and he’s just a crazy animal. He runs it hard, he’s fun to watch, and when he gets going we just keep feeding him,” Bell coach Wayne Mills said. “I’m tickled to have him back and I thought he looked close to 100 percent. He really had a significant sprain, the first week after he got rolled up against Corbin he could hardly move and he really should have been on crutches. That just shows his toughness and he’s really worked hard to get back.”
As a team the Bobcats ran the ball 47 times for 326 yards.
“We wanted to play like that. Our game plan was to just pound the ball at them because we felt like we could overpower them. We were able to do that, it wasn’t pretty at times but it was effective,” Mills added.
The Panthers hung tough early on as neither team scored for most of the first quarter. Bell County was moving the ball on their first drive, but Daniel Elder was able to recover a Bobcat fumble to end it.
Bell County finally got on the board with 27 seconds to go in the period when junior linebacker Justin Green scooped up a Hunter Sullivan fumble and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. Hayden Gilbert’s kick made it 7-0.
Bell found the end zone again early in the second quarter on Caldwell’s 28-yard touchdown run. The Bobcat lead was 14-0 with 9:08 remaining in the first half.
Elizabethtown’s standout sophomore running back Bernil Cecil made his presence felt on the next Panther possession. He slipped a tackle and cut back across the field to outrun the Bobcat secondary for a 56-yard touchdown. The conversion failed so the score was 14-6 with 7:03 left in the second quarter.
Other than that big run, Bell County contained Class 3A’s leading rusher during the regular season. Cecil finished with 81 yards on 16 carries.
“Our defense played lights out again tonight and we held him in check, take away that one run and he 25 yards,” Mills said. “Hats off to coach Hoskins for coming up with a good game plan for him and the kids for executing it.”
Bell County threatened to add another score before halftime, but Caldwell was stopped short on a fourth-down play from the Panther 3. A pressured Elizabethtown punt only travelled 17 yards and the Bobcats were in business again very late in the half. Gilbert nearly hauled in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Collett, he came down in the end zone with the ball on his chest but it popped free as he rolled over and the score was still 14-6 at the break.
Elizabethtown got the ball to start the second half, but Bell’s defense forced a quick three-and-out. Chase Woolum returned the punt 32 yards to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Caldwell that made it 21-6 at the 9:01 mark of the third quarter.
“Our big thing is the first five minutes after halftime are the most important. That’s when the tone is set,” Mills said. “We made a goal to get a three-and-out, and our defense did that, and we wanted to score. We felt like that would blow the game open — I’m not a prophet, but that’s how it worked out.”
The Panthers managed just one first down in the second half as the Bobcats were able to pull away.
Caldwell found the end zone again on a 22-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 27-6 lead.
Junior tight end Devon Miller capped the scoring with a 6-yard touchdown catch from Collett with under five minutes to play.
The passing game wasn’t much of a factor for either team as both quarterbacks faced heavy pressure when trying to throw. Collett finished 2-of-7 for 8 yards with that touchdown. Sullivan was also 2-of-7 passing for zero net yards.
“Even when we would spread things out they stayed in like a goal line defense. We didn’t have a lot of time to throw, but we were lucky to get the one touchdown on a play-action fake,” Mills said. “They were bringing the linebackers and started blitzing a lot after we were running it down their throats.”
Woolum was Bell’s second leading rusher with 56 yards on 14 carries and fullback Corey Swanner added 38 yards on seven runs. The Panthers ran for 132 yards on 31 carries. Sullivan ran for 22 yards on eight carries and James Washington added 20 yards on six runs.
Elizabethtown ends the season with a record of 6-5.
Bell County (7-4) advances to the regional semifinals where they’ll travel to Louisville Central next Friday.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity. They’re the team in Class 3A that’s been dominant the last few years. If we’re going to be the best, then we’re going to have to beat the best and that’s what we have laying in front of us for this week,” Mills said. “Obviously these Bell County kids are going to go up there with everything they’ve got in them and hopefully we can try to find a way to score some points. You just never know, we want to shock the nation this week and we’ll see what happens.”
— — —
BC- Justin Green 35 fumble return (Hayden Gilbert kick)
BC- Austin Caldwell 28 run (Gilbert kick)
E- Bernil Cecil 56 run (run fail)
BC- Caldwell 4 run (Gilbert kick)
BC- Caldwell 22 run (kick fail)
BC- Devon Miller 6 pass from Peyton Collett (Gilbert kick)
RUSHING — E’town, Bernil Cecil 16-81, Hunter Sullivan 8-22, James Washington 6-20, Delonza Cates 1-9; Bell, Austin Caldwell 24-228, Chase Woolum 14-56, Corey Swanner 7-38, Nathan Collett 1-4, Peyton Collett 1-0.
PASSING — E’town, Sullivan 2-7-0-0; Bell, PCollett 2-7-0-8.
RECEIVING — E’town, Peyton Payne 1-5, Thad Humphrey 1-(-5); Bell, Devon Miller 1-6, Ben Collett 1-2.