By Bob Flynn
Register Sports Writer
The Madison Southern Eagles advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class 5A playoffs for the first time ever with a 41-28 win over Harlan County.
Damien Harris had a monster game for the Eagles, blitzing the Black Bears defense for 354 yards and six touchdowns.
The Southern defense continued its stellar play, containing the Black Bears potent running back tandem of Fred Massey and Cole Wilson all night.
The win avenged last year’s 41-24 loss to Harlan County in the second round of the playoffs.
“We played a great game tonight,” Southern coach Jon Clark said. “We feel like our defense can play against anybody right now. We have a balanced defense against the run and pass and we feel like we can do this moving forward.”
Harris set the tone early for the offense, breaking off a 38-yard touchdown run on the Eagles’ second possession to put them up 6-0.
Harlan County came back to take a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter, but once again Harris had an answer.
With 3:45 left in the first half, Harris took a pitch and raced 25 yards up the middle untouched to put the Eagles back on top 12-7. Casey Dionne made it 14-7 when he raced around left end and dove into the end zone for the two-point conversion.
It looked like the Black Bears were going to tie the game just before the half after cutting the lead to 14-13, but Aaron Sipple made a diving block of the extra point to preserve a one-point halftime lead for Southern.
The third quarter belonged to the defenses as neither offense could dent the end zone. Harlan County had the only scoring opportunity but a 27-yard field goal was wide left and the Eagles took their one-point advantage into the fourth quarter.
That’s when Harris exploded.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, he picked his way through the entire Black Bears defense on his way to a 42-yard touchdown from the Wolverine package to put the Eagles on top 21-13.
After the Southern defense held the Black Bears to a three-and-out, Harris raced 70 yards to paydirt to put the Eagles up 27-13.
Harlan County finally found some success on its next drive, going 60 yards in nine plays for a touchdown to cut the Southern lead to 27-21 with five minutes left in the game.
It looked like the Eagles had salted the game away when Harris worked his magic again, this time going from sideline-to-sideline and back to the middle for a 32-yard score to put the Eagles up 34-21 with 2:41 remaining.
But the Black Bears quickly moved downfield for a score with 1:40 to go to make it a 34-27 game.
But as he had done all night, Harris had one more answer weaving his way through the defense for a 58-yard score to ice the game at 41-28.
“Damien made some special runs tonight. But I tell you what. We played well offensively tonight,” Clark said. “I’m proud of our line, they gritted it out and Damien found creases tonight.”
On a rainy, foggy night, the Eagles protected the ball, with a second-quarter fumble the only blemish, while forcing Harlan County to cough the ball up three times.
Special teams also were a huge factor in the game as the Eagles continually kept the Black Bears bottled up and backed up in their own end of the field most of the night.
The win sets up another rematch for the Eagles, one they have been looking forward to for the last five weeks, when Pulaski County gave them their only loss of the season.
The Eagles and Maroons will square off Friday in Somerset with much more on the line than the earlier game.
Since that loss to Pulaski, the Eagles have been on a mission to get this rematch and Clark said his team will go in more prepared this time.
“We have wanted a shot at Pulaski. I doesn’t matter what round it is or where it is, we wanted another shot at them,” Clark said. “I know our guys will be fired up and they will see a much different team than the one they faced at our place.”