Jackets defeat Claiborne in Veterans Bowl

For a moment in time, all seemed lost for Middlesboro when they hosted Claiborne, Tennessee on Friday. After holding a 16-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Jackets let the Bulldogs take a 20-16 advantage with just over a minute to go in the game. Then the unthinkable happened.

With 36.9 remaining in the game, Middlesboro — a team who doesn’t sling the ball around — decided to switch things up. Rhyan Rogers dropped back and launched a 64-yard bomb to Sebastian Wagoner, who caught the pass and took it to the house for a touchdown to give the Jackets a 22-20 lead.

The Middlesboro defense took over from there holding Claiborne scoreless over the final 36 seconds to secure the Jackets’ first win of the season.

“I knew coming off I had a post. I was like ‘I got to execute.’ I took off running and immediately lost all confidence because I saw another safety. I was like ‘I’m covered. It’s game over,” said Wagoner about the game-winning play. “(The safety) bit down on (Alex Mason), and I saw it was wide open. It just happened. After that, it was electrifying. It was an amazing moment.

“I was just so happy, and I just broke down. You’re down, and you do something like that. It was just amazing. It’s just a magnificent moment to have in your life. I can look back 30 years from now (and) tell my kids this story.”

While the game was entertaining, Middlesboro coach Zach Massengill said it wasn’t pretty.

“I’m proud of our kids for fighting, but at the end of the day, we shouldn’t have been in that situation,” said Massengill. “I thought the defense played better. We found a way to get off the field.

“We’ve got a lot to clean up. We’re not going to beat good football teams doing that very often. I knew Claiborne had some athletes. Those kids played hard. They played to the final whistle too. It could’ve gone either way, but our kids found a way to win it. I’m proud of them, but we have to go back to work on Monday.”

Rogers was awarded Veterans Bowl MVP honors for his work on both sides of the field. On offense, he rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. He also went 3-for-6 for 87 yards and a touchdown through the air. On defense, he came up with a big interception in the third quarter.

“Rhyan played well,” said Massengill. “We dialed up Sebastian at the end, and he made a play. I’m just proud of all of them.”

Alex Mason also performed well on the ground rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.

Turnovers were the story early during the game.

On the opening drive, the Jackets advanced inside the Bulldog 15 before Caleb Bogonko fumbled. Claiborne recovered and began a drive of their own.

A big run by Stormy Livesay moved the Bulldogs into Middlesboro territory. Eli Stone connected on a 35-yard pass to Haydn Hollin that took Claiborne down to the Jacket 2. That’s where the Jacket defense took over forcing a fumble on fourth-and-goal from the one. Trey Watkins recovered the ball for Middlesboro.

The Jackets finally found the scoreboard with 7:09 remaining in the second. On the second play of the drive, Mason broke free on a counter and took it 85 yards for a touchdown. Bogonko converted the two-point attempt to give Middlesboro an 8-0 lead.

The score stayed steady until the final two minutes of the half. Bryce Laws capped off a seven-play, 82-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown run with 1:23 remaining in the half. Nick Poindexter blocked the extra point to give the Jackets an 8-6 lead.

Middlesboro extended their lead to 10 late in the third. After a short run by Mason, Rogers broke free for a 78-yard touchdown run with 2:53 remaining in the quarter. Mason converted the two-point attempt to increase the Jacket lead to 16-6.

It didn’t take long for Claiborne to answer. After recovering an onside kick at the 50, Stone capped a seven-play drive with an 11-yard run for a touchdown with 11:45 remaining in the game. Livesay converted the two-point attempt to narrow the deficit to 16-14.

A stroke of bad luck for Middlesboro proved positive for Claiborne midway through the fourth. Watkins broke free and raced 30 yards down the sideline. In an attempt to score, he reached for the goal line but was hit before crossing. The ball touched down in the end zone but stayed in bounds. The refs blew the whistle dead and called a touch back, giving Claiborne possession.

The Bulldogs capitalized going 90 yards in 11 plays. Stone scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge to give Claiborne a 20-16 lead with just 1:11 remaining in the game.

Middlesboro wasn’t out of the game yet. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Rogers launched a 64-yard bullet to Wagoner for what would be the game-winning touchdown as the Jackets walked away with a 22-20 victory.

Up Next

Middlesboro (1-1) travels to Clay County for the Appalachian Bowl. They will square off against North Laurel (1-1) at 6 p.m.