By Robert Clark
Madison Southern had not won a playoff game in seven years.
But, despite the absence of standout running back Damien Harris, the Eagles defeated Perry County Central, 37-36, Friday in the opening round of the Class 5A Playoffs.
Three times this season, the Eagles had suffered a one-point loss, but they were on the winning side of that margin this time.
“Everything that has happened prepares you for playoffs and those one-point losses helped us tonight,” Southern coach Jon Clark said. “We knew what was at stake.”
The Eagles will hit the road next week to face Harlan County is the second round.
All season, the Eagles have relied heavily on their rushing attack.
But, they opened the playoff game by going to the air. Quarterback Adam Simpson threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Devante Linville to give Southern a quick 7-0 lead.
“We know Adam can throw the ball,” Clark said. “We knew they would load the box we took action and capitalized.”
However, Perry County Central would convert on three third downs and score on a 5-yard touchdown.
That score was the first of Austin Pray’s four touchdown passes.
The Eagles responded on their next possession when Simpson found John Williams for eight yards on a fourth-down conversion that would set a 25-yard rushing touchdown from Adam Simpson.
With the Eagles leading they would recover the kickoff and this time would be unsuccessful on their second fourth-down conversion on the night.
The Commodores would find the end zone only four plays later, this time a 33-yard touchdown pass, but would miss the extra point.
“He was one of the best players we have seen all season,” Clark said of Pray. “We knew he can throw and he and knew this team could score.”
With Harris on the sidelines, senior Coty Russell would put the Eagles on his back.
Russell converted on two third-down plays and once on fourth that set up the Eagles’ third touchdown on the night when Wes Proctor would take it in from five yards out.
That touchdown put Southern up 21-13.
The Eagles defense knew going into the game that they would have to contain the dual-threat quarterback and the Commodores’ third possession would end up costly when Pyler Hagan would sack the quarterback, setting a school record for tackles in a season.
Brett Sipple recovered a fumble that gave the Eagles the ball at the 20 where they missed a field goal that would have given them a double-digit lead at halftime.
“This is why we play,” Clark said “We have been in this position before we just have to be the team the creates stops and turnover and that will be the team that advances.”
Out of the gate after halftime, the defense forced a Commodores’ three-and-out and Russell would once again take the team on his shoulders, scoring from 1 yard out giving the Eagles 28-13 lead just minutes into the second half.
Despite the Eagles’ defense, the Commodores would only use two minutes off the clock when they threw another touchdown pass, this time 43 yards out and would convert on the two-point conversion and cut into the Eagles lead 28-21.
The Eagles knowing the Commodores ability to score played conservatively, converting on three third-down conversion of their own.
A 22-yard field goal gave the Eagles a 10- point advantage heading into the final quarter.
The Commodores drove with efficiency in the passing attack, but would have to settle for a field goal that would cut into the Eagles lead.
In three of the four losses on the season the Eagles have surrendered costly turnovers and penalties in the fourth quarters. The Commodores would cut into the lead in only 90 seconds on their fourth touchdown pass — a 57-yarder. The extra point would fail, but due to a penalty on the field the Commodores would attempt the two point conversion, but Coty Russell intercepted the pass.
The Eagles’ only punt of the game followed and the gave the Commodores the opportunity to take the lead.
Perry County Central converted a third down and scored moments later from five yards out.
With less than four minutes remaining, Simpson rushed for 33 yards ,setting up another rushing touchdown for Coty Russell, who scored from 15 yards out.
The Eagles failed on the two-point conversion, but still had a one-point lead, 37-36 lead, with two minutes remaining.
The Eagles then stopped the Commodores on a fourth down, sealing the victory.