HARROGATE, Tenn. — It started out as a track meet and ended as a blowout. Cumberland Gap scored on five of their first six possessions and their defense stiffened after some early troubles as the Panthers downed Chuckey-Doak 55-27 Friday.
The win goes a long way toward securing a playoff berth for the Panthers after missing the post-season the last two years. Cumebrland Gap now has wins over the other three Class 3A team in their district, but coach Neal Pucciarelli said the team has even bigger goals in mind.
“It’s one step closer. We still have to win some games, obviously, but this really improves our chances,” he said. “Our goal is to try and have a home playoff game. I don’t know if we’ll get there or not but that’s what we’re shooting for.”
Senior quarterback Blake Franklin completed 17-of-21 passes for an even 300 yards — including touchdowns of 28 yards to Chase Smith, 33-yards to Dylan Gambrel and 7 yards to Jeremiah Lorens — and added three short rushing scores in the game.
“Chuckey-Doak has a really good football team but we played really well tonight,” Pucciarelli said. “I was just really pleased with how we executed offensively. Defensively, we got off to rocky start but the kids regained their composure and did a super job from the second quarter on.”
Both teams just marched up and down the field in the first quarter. Cumberland Gap opened with a quick drive capped by Franklin’s 29-yard TD pass to Smith. Devon Helton’s kick made it 7-0.
Chuckey-Doak answered with a strong running game, led by Bryce Malone. Malone took a pitch and outran the Panther defense for a 45-yard TD and Collins Crews kicked the PAT to tie the game.
The Panthers again used the pass as Franklin hit Gambrel for a long gainer up the seam and then capped the drive with a four-yard TD run.
The Black Knights answered right back again and again it was Malone, this time scoring from 46-yards out to tie the game at 14.
Smith hauled in another deep ball from Franklin to set up Franklin’s 2-yard run and the Panthers led 21-14 late in the first quarter.
The Knights were driving and had a 1st & goal at the Cumberland Gap 3 early in the second quarter. But the Panther defense held them kept them out of the end zone on four runs. Brad Fleeman had early penetration at the line of scrimmage on the first three run and linebackers Brandon Bailey and Jeremiah Lorens collapsed to finish off the tackles. On the fourth-down play it was Bailey, Fleeman and Dakota Brock wrapping up Malone as he got inside the one. Lorens got low and held the ball out of the end zone even though Malone’s shoulder crossed the line as the Panthers held.
“Coach Russell made a few adjustments and we kept our composure. Previously, against Oneida, we kind of lost our composure — but tonight they just kept on playing,” said Pucciarelli.
Chuckey-Doak got a safety, stopping Panther running back Wesley Nance in the end zone on the following play to cut the lead to 21-16, but the CG defense played with much more confidence the rest of the game.
Blake Fleeman sacked the Knight quarterback on the following drive and they ultimately had to punt. The Panthers took over on their own 21 and marched 79-yards to take control of the game.
Franklin hit Gambrel for a 21-yard gain on a wide receiver middle screen to get the drive going, Nance had a couple of nice runs for first downs, and Gambrel hauled in Franklin’s deep ball for a 33-yard touchdown. Nance added the conversion on shuttle pass from Franklin and it was 29-16 with 5:00 to go before the half.
“We felt like we could throw the football against them. That was our focus in practice and our receivers stepped up and had some great games,” Pucciarelli said. “Blake threw it fantastic and they caught it. We had some long passes that were just back-breakers. About the time they were comfortable defending the pass, we kept them honest with the run game. The o-line played great.”
Crews kicked a 25-yard field goal for Chuckey-Doak, but Gambrel returned the ensuing kick-off 87 yards for a touchdown and the Panthers took a 35-19 lead into the half.
Franklin passed to Lorens for a 7-yard TD in the third quarter and it was 42-19. Early in the fourth, Brock intercepted a pass and returned it 28 yards for another score and a 49-19 advantage.
Chuckey-Doak’s Nic Alexander scored on a 3-yard run later in the quarter and Malone added the conversion.
Franklin capped the Panthers’ next drive with a 1-yard sneak and 55-27 proved to be the final.
Gambrel led Cumberland Gap’s receivers with five catches for 121 yards, while Smith caught four passes for 95 yards. Nance ran for 123 yards on eight carries in the game.
Cumberland Gap (5-1, 3-0 in district play) visits two-time defending Class 4A champion Greeneville next Friday at 8 p.m. Chuckey-Doak (4-2, 2-1) hosts North Greene Friday.