The first of legendary Tennessee coach Robert Neyland’s game maxims – “The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win” – was proven true on Friday night in Nashville in the Covington Chargers’ 21-20 Class 3A semifinal loss to the Pearl-Cohn Firebirds.
“No one play decides a ball game,” said Charger head coach J.R. Kirby. “We made too many mistakes to overcome in a game against a good team like Pearl-Cohn.”
Three fumbles, a missed extra point, the kickoff team taking a play off, two dropped passes and two dropped interceptions and loss to injury of starters Caleb Winfrey and Reed Chipman, combined with no glaring errors by the opponent, spelled doom for CHS.
Covington (11-3) took the opening kick off and moved briskly down field but gave the ball up on a fumble at the Firebird 30-yard line. After forcing a punt, Covington mounted a 72-yard scoring drive that was capped by a three-yard TD run by Carson Ruffin, who gained 46 yards on 13 carries and connected on 7 of 17 pass attempts for 69 yards.
Pearl-Cohn’s speedster running back, I’ven Dayton Jr., knotted the score at 7-7 in the second quarter on a six-yard run. After a 50-yard gain from their own 16 to the Charger 34, the Firebirds (14-0) went on top 14-7 later in the quarter on a 10-yard pass completion from Martino Owens to Cedric Watkins.
Charger running back Marcus Hayes returned from injury to put the finishing touch on a 50-yard possession with a 10 yard run that tied the game at 14 with 1:31 left in the first half.
The ensuing kick off was a back breaker.
For the first time this season, a team returned a kick for a touchdown.
“We had worked on kickoff coverage in practice,” Kirby said. “I had gotten after them then for not executing. The same players did not execute in the game and it cost us.”
To their credit, Covington took the ensuing kickoff and drove the ball to the end zone, cutting the margin to 21-20 on Hayes’ second scoring run, a six-yard scamper as the clock expired.
After the half, both coaching staffs made defensive adjustments that kept both teams off the scoreboard for the final two quarters. The Chargers had their chances, but the aforementioned dropped passes and interceptions and “the dagger,” as Kirby described it: a lost fumble at the Firebird 14 with four minutes remaining in the game that ended the Chargers’ last real scoring threat.
The Charger defense did its job, holding Pearl-Cohn to 175 yards (83 rushing on 31 carries and 92 yards on 7 of 13 pass completions).
Meanwhile, the CHS offense gained 265 rushing yards on 56 carries. Jalen Fayne rushed four times for 33 yards, Jamarion Dowell gained 47 yards on six carries and Andrew Scott, who had to move to linebacker after Winfrey’s injury, picked up 69 yards on 16 carries.
“I felt that we should have won by two scores, but turnovers and the failure to execute the game plan at critical times were our downfall,” Kirby said.
With all that said, Covington has nothing to hang its head about over the 2019 season. Some questioned whether the Chargers would win five games before the season began.
“The kids played hard all year,” said Kirby. “We overcame adversity, losing players to injury and some poor off-the-field decisions. Our 13 seniors stuck with it and made our third straight semifinal appearance.
Say what you will, but there are only two Class 3A teams in Tennessee who have played 44 games in the past three seasons: four-time state champion Alcoa and the Covington Chargers, who are 38-6 in that span.
“Although we will have to make replacements in the secondary, at linebacker and in the line next year, we have the nucleus of a really sound team returning in 2020 with our QB and running backs,” said Kirby. “The team and staff are grateful for the support we received this year from our booster organization and our loyal fans. We will be back in 2020 and go at it again.”