Trick or treat! Cornersville football fans received the latter on Halloween when the TSSAA announced Saturday morning that the Bulldogs had earned a wildcard berth to the Class A playoffs after CHS pulled out a thrilling 21-20 home victory over the Perry County Vikings in their season finale on Thursday night.
Although Cornersville (5-5, 4-3 Region) had defeated Perry County handily in a preseason scrimmage, the Bulldogs came into Thursday's contest mired in a three-game losing streak and had their playoff hopes dangling by a thread.
The Vikings (6-4, 5-2 Region), conversely, had won four of their last five games, which included impressive victories over Mt. Pleasant and Collinwood, and were trying to improve their seeding for the playoffs.
Cornersville, however, came out riding a wave of emotion and jumped out to a 14-6 lead midway through the first quarter. After Perry County rallied to tie the game at 14-14 by halftime, the Bulldogs grabbed a 21-14 advantage late in the third quarter on a one-yard touchdown run by quarterback Joe Stocstill. The Vikings sliced the deficit to 21-20 with 8:21 left in the fourth quarter thanks to a four-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Jacob Tucker, but Perry County placekicker Kanin McKnight missed the extra point before Cornersville made a late defensive stand to hold on for the one-point victory.
The Bulldogs then received some help the following night when several teams that were competing for the remaining wildcard spots lost. As a result, Cornersville made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and will travel to Perry County in the opening round where they will play the Vikings for the second time in a span of eight days.
"Making the playoffs means everything," said Cornersville senior captain Dylan Jones. "That's what me, (Josh) Polly, and the other seniors have worked hard to achieve. Not only the senior class, but the whole team stepped up tonight. I think they knew how much it meant because this would be our last game of the season and the last game for the senior class had we lost."
While Perry County had recently defeated two teams handily that had beaten the Bulldogs, CHS coach Ray Stocstill believed his squad drew confidence from their preseason scrimmage against the Vikings.
"I think it helped tonight. Kids are human and they remember that so it probably gave them some confidence," said Ray Stocstill. "This was a great high school football game. I'm so proud of our players because they played with so much determination. I haven't had a team put forth a better effort than this one tonight. It was a hard hitting game and both teams competed the whole time."
Having averaged just 10 points and only 149 yards of total offense in their last three outings, the Bulldogs were bolstered by the return of junior Josh Pope to the quarterback position and augmented their Spread attack with a heavy dose of the power running game out of the I-formation. Consequently, Cornersville finished with 311 yards of total offense and piled up 250 yards rushing while averaging a healthy 5.7 yards per carry.
"We finally got healthy this week and had some weapons to fire," said Ray Stocstill. "The last couple of weeks we had trouble getting first downs in short yardage so we worked on that this week. I don't think Perry County was prepared for the I-formation and had trouble stopping it."
Pope and Joe Stocstill provided the Bulldogs with an effective tandem at quarterback, as Pope rushed for 101 yards on 10 carries and completed 2-of-5 passes for 51 yards, while Stocstill connected on 2-of-3 passes for 10 yards to go along with 41 yards rushing and a touchdown on five carries.
Jones saw his most extensive action of the year at running back and toted the ball 17 times for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Taylor Rogers tallied 28 yards on 10 carries for CHS as well.
Senior wide out Brent Pope hauled in two passes for 53 yards to pace the Bulldog receiving corps.
Perry County came into Thursday's contest averaging 29.2 points per game and tallied 318 yards of total offense, but Cornersville limited the Vikings to just 90 yards rushing on 24 carries and sacked Tucker four times.
Tucker literally accounted for all of Perry County's offensive production, as he completed 20-of-34 passes for 228 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception, while also rushing for 92 yards on 21 carries.
Forrest Boutwell was Tucker's favorite target and hauled in five passes for 48 yards and a touchdown. Blake Kimble also had four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns, while Dray Mercer added 38 yards on four receptions.
Jon Douglas, Joe Stocstill, Matt Osteen, and Tyler Henry each had seven tackles to lead the Bulldogs' defensive effort. John Brewer and Noah Rubbo also registered six and five tackles respectively with Rubbo notching a sack, while Patrick Lyle had four tackles and a sack. Rogers and Polly each recorded three tackles and a sack as well with Polly tallying an interception.
Cornersville punched the Vikings in the mouth on their opening possession of the game, as they marched 73 yards to pay dirt in seven plays to take a 7-0 lead. After Jones picked up 10 yards on a couple of runs, Josh Pope hit Brent Pope for a 45-yard pass to move the ball down to the Perry County 18. Jones then plowed into the end zone from a yard out four plays later before Brewer converted the extra point.
Perry County immediately counterpunched and cut the deficit to 7-6 when Tucker hooked up with Kimble for a 73-yard touchdown strike down on the Vikings' first offensive snap, but Chase Bassham blocked McKnight's PAT attempt to maintain CHS' one-point advantage.
The Bulldogs continued to move the ball at will early on and answered with a seven-play, 62-yard touchdown drive to push their lead to 14-6 with 6:04 left in the first quarter. Stocstill connected with Brent Pope for an eight-yard pass on 3rd and 7 to pick up Cornersville's initial first down of the possession prior to breaking loose for a 28-yard jaunt on the next play to advance the ball to the Viking 23. Following consecutive runs of 11 and eight yards by Jones, Perry County was flagged for a defensive encroachment penalty. Jones then scored on a two-yard touchdown plunge on the next snap before Brewer tacked on the extra point.
The Vikings quickly moved to the CHS 39 on their second possession, but the Bulldogs eventually stopped Perry County on downs thanks to a couple of Tucker incompletions and a sack by Polly.
Cornersville had their third offensive series stall out because of a pair of penalties before the Vikings drove from their own 19 to the Bulldog 6 in eight plays with the help of two defensive penalties on CHS. The Bulldog defense hunkered down and held Perry County to just one yard on their next two plays. Douglas then dropped Mercer for an eight-yard loss on a reverse before Jones broke up a pass by Tucker in the back of the end zone on 4th down.
Cornersville picked up a couple of first downs to move out of the shadow of their own end zone, but the Vikings stuffed CHS on a 4th and 1 run to regain possession at the Bulldog 47 with 2:14 left in the second quarter.
After Tucker ripped off consecutive runs of 15 and 28 yards to give Perry County 1st and goal at the 4, the Vikings picked up just two yards on their next two plays, before they were given a fresh set of downs because of a questionable pass interference call in the end zone. Tucker then hit Kimble for a two-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first half and Mercer scored on the two-point conversion run to tie the game at 14-14.
Perry County promptly moved into CHS territory on their opening possession of the second half, but the Bulldogs halted the Viking advance with the aid of a false start penalty and a Rubbo sack to force a punt.
Although Perry County downed the punt at the Cornersville 5, the Bulldogs got their offense cranked back up and engineered an eight-play, 95-yard touchdown drive to pull ahead 21-14 with 3:37 left in the third quarter. Following a 29-yard scamper by Pope on the second play of the drive, CHS picked up two more first downs four straight runs. Pope then weaved his way through the Viking defense for a spectacular 35-yard run after scrambling from the pocket, before Stocstill scored on a one-yard touchdown plunge on the next play while Brewer added the extra point.
Polly intercepted Tucker on the Vikings' next drive, but Cornersville failed to pick up a first down on their ensuing possession and were forced to punt. Perry County then put together a nine-play, 49-yard scoring drive, capped by a Boutwell four-yard touchdown catch, to slice the deficit to 21-20 with 8:21 left in the contest before McKnight saw his extra point attempt sail wide left of the uprights.
The Bulldogs' next drive eventually stalled because of a holding penalty, but they still managed to pick up two first downs on six straight runs and chewed nearly six minutes off the clock.
Taking over at their own 27 with 2:35 left and two timeouts, the Vikings moved to the Cornersville 35 with the help of 15 and 13-yard completions by Tucker before Kimble hauled in a 16-yard reception on 3rd and 10. Kimble, however, was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play was over before Rogers sacked Tucker for an 18-yard loss two snaps later. Perry County managed to call a timeout with 1.9 seconds left, but the Bulldogs tackled the Vikings for a five-yard loss on the final play of the game after several lateral attempts by Perry County.