HARROGATE, Tenn. — Cumberland Gap all but ensured themselves of a home playoff game next week as they held on for a wild 47-42 win over Grainger Friday.
“It was like a heavyweight fight. I mean what a showdown,” said Panther coach Neal Pucciarelli. “We knew going in they were better than last year and we’re better than last year. It was for second place in the conference and the kids didn’t disappoint.”
Seniors Blake Franklin and Wesley Nance carried the load on offense. Franklin, despite missing the second quarter with an injury after taking a late hit, ran for 219 yards on 13 carries and scrored three touchdowns. Nance added 148 yards on 19 rushes and four TDs.
Grainger led 21-14 at the half thanks to a pair of short TD runs by Zach Smith and one from quarterback Lance Morton. But Franklin returned in the third quarter and took over the game. He scored on a 65-yard keeper and Deveon Helton’s kick tied it. Nance added a 20-yard touchdown run and the Panthers carried a 27-21 lead into the fourth quarter.
“When he came back in he was like a man on a mission, he was possessed. I had never seen a kid play that way,” Pucciarelli said of his quarterback. “He had a tremendous game.”
The game was far from over. Hunter Harp capped a long, methodical Grizzly drive with a one-yard dive and Lucas Wear’s kick put Grainger back on top, 28-27 with 10:18 to play.
The Panthers need just four plays to got back in front after Jordan Teague returned a short kick 19 yards to the Grainger 45. Franklin passed to Nance for four yards and a facemask penalty put the ball at the 27. After on Franklin run picked up 26 yards, he bulled in from the one to put Cumberland Gap ahead to stay 33-28.
Grainger got a long kick return of their own and was driving with a first down at the CG 20. But on 4th & 4 from the 14, Franklin came on a safety blitz and threw Morton for a loss of nine.
“That was just absolutely huge. We tried to keep him out on defense, but were able to sneak him in a time or two,” Pucciarelli said. “He had just a monster game, probably the best a Gap kid has had in the ten years I’ve been here. And the kids just fed off that. Wesley ran the ball hard, the line played well and the receivers also blocked downfield.”
Franklin broke off a 49-yard run on the ensuing Panther drive and Nance capped it by taking an option pitch from Franklin five yards for a touchdown and the lead was 40-28 with 6:50 to go.
The Grizzlies answered with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Morton to Bailey Lamb and Morton hit Harp for the conversion to cut the lead to 40-36 with 3:40 remaining.
Nance gashed the Grizzlies for runs of 24 and 14 yards while Franklin added nine and 13-yard gains as Cumberland went 65 yards on just six plays. Nance capped the drive with a two-yard TD run to make it 47-36 with just 1:08 to play.
Morton hit Matt Parker for an 11-yard touchdown to bring Grainger within 47-42 with 23 seconds left, but Teague caught and held on to the onside kick and the Panthers were able to run out the clock.
Cumberland Gap (7-3, 4-2) and Grainger (4-6, 3-3) will both find out their playoff fate Saturday.
“We’ve not hosted a playoff game since 2007, so being able to have a game here and be on our field is just great. The kids showed so much character and heart, they’ve shown their maturity the last two weeks coming from behind,” said Pucciarelli.
The Panthers will likely be hosting Johnson County or Unicoi County, depending on how the rest of Friday’s game played out.