Bulldogs come up one game short of state title
The 2017 Cornersville football team defied the odds all season long to break long standing school records on the way to a Region 5A title, multiple postseason victories, and a Class A state title berth despite never winning a playoff contest prior this season.
The darling of the 2017 TSSAA playoffs finally met its match on Thursday morning when Greenback, the 2015 and 2016 single A runnerup, turned a close 14-14 tie with 5:59 remaining in the opening half into a 42-21 route to win its first state championship since 1987.
"Greenback is a good team that deserved to be here and deserved this win," Brice Dunkleman, one of only five Bulldog seniors, said. "They put up a good fight. I can't remember an exact play when the momentum shifted, but right after halftime they stopped us first and then scored and that gave them the upper hand."
Cornersville had plenty of chances to remain in the game, but a few bad bounces for the Bulldogs and some luck for the Cherokees helped widen the margin.
The Bulldogs finished with three fumbles and lost all three while the Cherokees fumbled twice, but controlled possession both times.
Both squads each came up with an interception, but Greenback was able to turn theirs into points and the Bulldogs failed to capitalize on the turnover.
Bulldog running back turned quarterback Kolbe McMahon led Cornersville with 97 rushing yards on 15 carries to go along with 150 kick return yards and 54 passing yards for a touchdown.
The Cherokees held leading rusher Cameron Whitaker to just 24 yards on the ground on nine attempts and Eli Woodard to eight carries for 27 yards.
Woodard also passed for 34 yards and a score on 2-for-6 under center.
The all-around star of the night for the Bulldogs was Darien Bush, who caught three passes for 88 yards and two scores and adding a season-high 14 tackles and an interception on defense.
Trenten Warren chipped in 12 tackles on defense to finish with 47 in five playoff games, Blake Pickett added eight tackles with a tackle for a loss, and Devin Baus had six tackles with two and a half tackles for a loss and a sack.
The Bulldogs started off the game with a surprise onside kick that was recovered by CJ Coble.
Three plays later, McMahon hit a streaking Bush on a 54-yard touchdown catch for the 7-0 lead after a successful Adam Qualls PAT kick with just under a minute and a half ticked off the clock.
"They were playing to the inside," Bush recalled. "(Peyton) Finch ran a slant and I ran a wheel (route) and it left (McMahon) room to throw me the ball, the defensive back missed the ball and I took off running."
The instant elation was short-lived as Greenback needed just three plays and 25 seconds to tie the game back at 7-7 after a 10-yard Josh Edwards touchdown catch.
The Cherokees regained possession after a Cornersville three-and-out, but the Bulldogs missed a key opportunity to take the ball back after a Greenback fumble.
Greenback then put all its chips on the table on a fourth-and-six and the gamble paid off with a 7-yard completion to Holden Willis to keep the drive alive.
Edwards followed the fourth-down conversion with an untouched 16-yard touchdown run to gain its first lead of the game at 14-7 with 6:08 left in the first quarter.
McMahon set the Bulldogs up in great field position at the 47-yard line after a 28-yard kickoff return followed by a 22-yard run and the seven play drive culminated with another Bush touchdown catch, this time from Eli Woodard for 19 yards.
"The play was made for me to catch--it was called echo," Bush explained. "I ran a post route and got a great throw from Eli, caught it and I was already in the end zone."
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that would be the last score until late in the contest.
The Cherokees continued to drive easily on the Bulldogs, but Bush came to the rescue once again with an acrobatic interception on the Cornersville sideline at the 18-yard line.
The Bulldogs ran three plays, but ultimately punted before the Cherokees drove to the Bulldogs 2-yard line, setting up Cornersville's best defensive sequence of the game.
Cornersville stopped the Cherokees on four straight plays to regain possession on the 4-yard line before disaster struck.
A Warren fumble on the first play from scrimmage gave the ball back the Greenback on the 2-yard which resulted in an easy score.
The fumble was the first of many inopportune mistakes that allowed the Cherokees to regain the momentum and ultimately control the rest of the contest.
The Bulldogs were able to drive deep into the Cherokees territory three more times, but stalled once in position to make a move.
Greenback was able to convert on a long fourth-and-10 just before halftime to set up a score and take a commanding 28-14 lead into the half before running away in the third quarter.
Despite the loss, the Bulldogs graduate just five players with only four receiving significant playing time.
Those seniors came into their final year with an 11-19 record over the previous three seasons and have laid the groundwork for a successful future.
"This class set the standard really high," McMahon, who went over the 1,000 mark on the season versus Greenback, said. "The younger guys know now that they are capable of making it this far and see what happens when they buy into Randolph's program. We have some really great coaches here."
Running backs Cameron Whitaker (1,921 all-purpose yards), Eli Woodard (1,505 rushing and 315 passing yards) and Trenten Warren (300 rushing and 82 tackles) will lead a strong nucleus of seniors on the ground to go along with Peyton Finch, Darien Bush and Ryan Prosser in the air.
"We were a young team when coach Randolph took over," Whitaker stated. "We got better year by year with the road to Cookeville on all of our minds. It all started this year when we finally beat Fayetteville to clinch the region and we all knew we could get here and we expect to be back next year."
And with Greenback graduating two total starting seniors the 2017 championship game just might be a preview of the 2018 title match.
But to finish with a different outcome, the Bulldogs will need to make some adjustments.
"We just need to work at depth in all positions," Bulldog coach Gerard Randolph, who now sports a 4-2 all-time playoff record, said. "Especially on our offensive and defensive lines where we'll lose some really good players. Having that confidence and swagger next year will be important."
For a Cornersville squad that had never won or even hosted a postseason game before this season, the success in the 2017 playoffs will set a standard that will reach far beyond next season.
This new breed of Bulldog will expect this success for years to come.
Cornersville 14 0 0 7 21
Greenback 14 14 14 0 42
Cornersville- Darien Bush 54 yard pass from Kolbe McMahon, Adam Qualls PAT, 10:31
Greenback- Josh Edwards 10-yard run, Creed Ramsey PAT, 10:06
Greenback- Josh Edwards 16-yard run, Creed Ramsey PAT, 6:08
Cornersville- Darien Bush 19-yard pass from Eli Woodard, Adam Qualls PAT, 3:29
Greenback- Seth Riddle 3-yard pass from Bryce Hanley, Creed Ramsey PAT, 5:59
Greenback- Breeden Gilbert 1-yard run, Creed Ramsey PAT, 0:25
Greenback- Josh Edwards 17-yard run, Creed Ramsey PAT, 7:04
Greenback- Seth Riddle 3-yard pass from Bryce Hanley, Creed Ramsey PAT, 2:44
Cornersville- Eli Woodard 1-yard run, Adam Qualls PAT, 0:08
Total Yards- Greenback 449, Cornersville 232
Rushing- Greenback 308, Cornersville 144
Passing- Greenback 141, Cornersville 88
First Downs- Greenback 22, Cornersville 8
Third Downs- Greenback 6-for-12, Cornersville 3 for 10
Fourth Downs- Greenback 2-for-3, Cornersville 0 for 2
Red Zone Scores, Chances- Greenback 6-for-8, Cornersville 2-for-4
Penalties-Greenback 7-70, Cornersville 4-22
Turnovers- Greenback 1, Cornersville 4
Rushing: Kolbe McMahon 15-97, Cameron Whitaker 9-24, Eli Woodard 8-24-TD, Trenten Warren 2-(-1)
Passing: Kolbe McMahon 1-8-54-TD-INT, Eli Woodard 2-6-34 TD
Receiving: Darien Bush 3-88-2TD
Kickoff Returns: Kolbe McMahon 5-150, Darien Bush 1-16, Cam Whitaker 1-10
Punt Returns: Eli Woodard 1-22, Cam Whitaker 1-4
All-Purpose: Kolbe McMahon 247, Darien Bush 104, Eli Woodard 46, Cam Whitaker 38
Fumbles: McMahon 2, Warren
PAT: Adam Qualls 3-3
Punts: Kolbe McMahon 4-146-36.5
Kickoffs: Brady Calahan 3-91-30.3
Defense: Darien Bush 14 (INT), Trenten Warren 12, Blake Pickett 8, Devin Baus 6 (SACK), Brock Powers 6, Kolbe McMahon 5, Cam Whitaker 4, C.J. Coble 4, Brice Dunkleman 3, Wesley Calahan 2, Peyton Finch 1, Houston Williams 1 (SACK), Ethan Courtemanche 1.
Tackle for Loss: Devin Baus 2.5, Blake Pickett, Houston Williams, Logan Courtemanche, Trenten Warren 0.5, Kolbe McMahon 0.5, C.J. Coble 0.5.
Rushing: Bryce Haney 14-116, Josh Edwards 18-109-3TD, Breeden Gilbert 16-88-TD
Passing: Bryce Haney 12-20-2TD-INT
Receiving: Breeden Gilbert 4-88, Cole Riddle 2-23, Holden Willis 2-18, Seth Riddle 2-6-2TD, Josh Edwards 1-6, Blake Morton 1-0.
Kickoff Returns: Blake Morton 1-18, Breeden Gilbert 1-16.
Punt Returns: Holden Willis 1-5.
All-Purpose: Breeden Gilbert 192, Bryce Hanley 116, Josh Edwards 115, Cole Riddle 23.
Fumbles: Edwards 2.
PAT: Creed Ramsey 6-6
Punts: Cole Riddle 3-104-34.7
Kickoffs: Creed Ramsey 7-301-43.0
Breeden Gilbert 10, Bryce Hanley 7, Cody Alexander 6, Tyler Kuhn 6, Reese Plemmons 4, Hazon Carleton 4, Seth Riddle 2, Blake Morton 2, Josh Edwards 2 (INT), Nathaniel Reagan 2, Chase Harril, Creed Ramsey, Alexander Belcher, Zachary Stinnett, Lavon Presnell, Bobby Woods, Cole Riddle.
Tackle for Loss: Breeden Gilbert, Bryce Hanley, Reese Plemmons, Cody Alexander 0.5, Tyler Kuhn 0.5.
Coach of the Year-Gerard Randolph
Staff of the Year-Cornersville
Offensive Player of the Year-Eli Woodard
Defensive Player of the Year-Brock Powers
Lineman of the Year-Brice Dunkleman
Special Teams Player of the Year-Cameron Whitaker
All-Region First Team