Cunningham saves Rockets' season

Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Forrest's Luke Cunningham (23) comes down with a tipped ball late in the fourth quarter to save the season for the Rockets, who beat Tyner Academy 20-14 Friday night at Murrey E. Holton Field in Chapel Hill in the first round of the TSSAA playoffs. Tribune photos by Anthony S. Puca

When it seemed all was lost and the season was over, Luke Cunningham, like he has done several times before this season saved the Rockets, just ask the coach.

"That was huge, huge, huge," Forrest coach Brent Johns said. "I look back to the summer when Luke came out for the team and we just were not sure how he could help us, but I'm glad he did and like I told the guys after the game, 'Luke Cunningham just saved your season'."

The first-year Rocket receiver came up with a spectacular catch on a fourth-and-seven play on a pass from Layton Bennett that was deflected with less than a minute to go in the game, setting up the game winning touchdown that lifted Forrest to a 21-14 come from behind win over Tyner Academy in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs Friday night at Murrey E. Holton Field in Chapel Hill.

Exciting moment

"I really don't know what to say, my heart is beating out of my chest," Cunningham said. "With the season on line, I had to make that catch to save the season."

It was the Jacob Jones show early on in the contest as the senior running back opened the scoring with a 12-yard touchdown run that capped off Forrest's first possession of the game after the Rams deferred.

Jacob Jones returns a punt 75-yards for a touchdown in the first quarter for Forrest, who advanced to the second round with a 20-14 win over Tyner.

After the Rockets stopped Tyner on its initial possession, Jones took the ensuing punt to the house from 75-yards out, making it 13-0 as Javier Rios' PAT was no good with 5:03 remaining in the first quarter.

Jones' punt return touchdown was his third of the season.

Forrest stop

Forrest stopped Tyner again on a big fourth down play with 3:37 remaining in the opening period, but the Rams returned the favor when they took over on downs at their own 32-yard line with 1:15 left.

With score still 13-0, Tyner's next drive resulted in seven points when Devon Wright capped off a short six-play series with a 1-yard touchdown burst with 11:25 remaining in the first half.

The Rockets' ensuing drive burned up over six minutes off the clock, but produced zero points.

Senior linebacker Billy Clanton recovers the first of his two fumbles on the night for the Rockets.

On the first snap after a Forrest punt, senior linebacker Billy Clanton came up with a fumble, but the Rockets gave it right back on a Rah'le High interception with 2:24 left in the first half.

A Jones sack spoiled the next Tyner drive and the first half ended with the Rockets in front, 13-7.

Missed chance

The two teams exchanged a pair of punts on the first four possessions of the second until another Clanton fumble recovery with just under two minutes to go in the third quarter gave the Rockets a chance to increase their lead.

It was not to be as Keon Webb picked off another Rocket pass and the Rams took over, driving all the way to the Forrest eight-yard line as the third quarter came to a close.

Class 2A Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Lineman of the Year semifinalist Slayton Wild (8), who came up with a big fourth down tackle in the fourth quarter, corrals Tyner running back Keionte Halfacre (10).

Three running plays later, Class 2A Mr. Football Lineman of the Year semifinalist Slayton Wild came up with a fourth down stop at the two-yard line with 10:55 remaining in the contest.

Forrest was forced to punt with 7:09 remaining in the ballgame and the Rams wasted little time in taking the lead as Wright scored again on a 1-yard plunge before Luke Qualey booted the PAT, giving Tyner a 14-13 lead with 4:44 left in the contest.

Problem arises

Six rushing plays later, Forrest had a first-and-10 at the 48-yard line when things went awry for the Rockets due to a holding call with 2:11 left in the game that put the home team in a tough first-and-17.

After a short Jones run, Bennett slipped and fell on a drop back and was hit late by Tyner, giving Forrest some hope after the 15-yard penalty on the Rams.

Nick McClendon ran for two yards on third down before Bennett dropped back and threw to Cunningham on the slant play.

"I saw nine or 10 guys in the box there and I saw they weren't covering us very good and I told coach the play was there and he said 'run it', he trusted me," Cunningham said. "I'm just so happy for the team and I'm really glad I decided to play this year."

The ball was tipped as three defenders converged on Cunningham, who made a circus catch and held on to the ball at the Tyner 18-yard line.

Great numbers

Cunningham has six catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns and averages 40.7 yards per catch in his only season as a Rocket.

Layton Bennett (7) scores the game winning touchdown with 13 seconds left in the game as his linemen celebrate the score.

Wild ran for a first-and-goal at the 7-yard line and two plays later, Bennett smashed his way into the end zone, making it 19-14 before Wild ran in the two-point try for a 21-14 lead with 13 seconds left.

"We were just trying to waste all the time we could," Bennett said. "We know we were going to score there and we did not want this to end in the first round."

A Tyner incomplete pass on first down was followed by the game-ending interception by Michael Dyer, sending the Rockets (10-1) to the second round where they will host Meigs County (10-1), who blasted Jackson County 42-14 at Decatur.

"Cunningham is a big time player who comes up with big time plays in big time games and he did it again tonight," Wild said. "I have faith in my teammates, I knew Luke was going to come up with a big catch and now we are going to second round because of Luke Cunningham."

Tyner 0 7 0 7-14

Forrest 13 0 0 8-21

First quarter

Forrest-Jacob Jones 12 run, (Javier Rios PAT), 7:17

Forrest-Jones 75 punt return, (PAT NG), 5:03

Second quarter

Tyner-Devon Wright 1 run, (Luke Qualey PAT), 11:25

Fourth quarter

Tyner-Wright 1 run, (Qualey PAT), 4:44

Forrest-Layton Bennett 1 run, (Wild run), 0:13

Total yards-Forrest 200, Tyner 200

Rushing-Forrest 177, Tyner 126

Passing-Forrest 23, Tyner 74

Turnovers-Forrest 2, Tyner 3

Penalties-Forrest 4-50, Tyner 3-25

First downs-Forrest 14, Tyner 11

Forrest offense

Rushing-Slayton Wild 11-61, Jacob Jones 12-44-TD, Nick McClendon 16-39, Troy Turner 7-37, Parker Stuard 3-5, Luke Cunningham 1-1, Dylan Pendley 1-1, Layton Bennett 4-(-11)

Passing-Layton Bennett 1-2-23-INT, Josh Meglis 0-2-INT

Receiving-Luke Cunningham 1-23


Tackles-Nick McClendon 6, Billy Clanton 5 (two fumble recoveries), Garrett Nevison 5, Luke Cunningham 4, Parker Stuard 4, Slayton Wild 4, Nathan Trout 3, Josh Hill 3, Dylan Pendley 2, Troy Turner 2, Cole Villazon 2, Jonathan Lykins 2, Michael Dyer 1 (INT), Jacob Jones 1 (sack)

Kick returns

Kickoffs-Jacob Jones 1-0, Slayton Wild 2-25

Punt returns-Jacob Jones 2-86-TD


Punting-Jacob Jones 4-115

PAT-Javier Rios 1-2

Kickoffs-Javier Rios (1 touchback)