Entering Friday night’s regular season finale at home against McNairy Central, Covington had only played two games over the previous 28 days, and lost both of them.
Some rust showed in the form of two interceptions and eight penalties for 95 yards.
“You could kind of tell early,” Covington coach J.R. Kirby said. “It’s just different when you haven’t played a game and I think you saw that a little bit.”
Nevertheless, the two things that Covington has hung its hat on all year – rushing and defense – were still there despite the long layoff.
The Chargers (8-2 overall, 3-2 Region 7-3A) held the Bobcats (4-6, 1-4) to just 51 yards and Marcus Hayes had his best game of the season with 209 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 29-0 region win.
With the victory, Covington secured the third seed out of Region 7-3A in the state playoffs, which begin for Covington and the rest of the region in round two on Nov. 13.
Sophomore linebacker A.C. Mason, who made multiple big plays Friday night and tackled a McNairy player in the end zone for a fourth quarter safety, acknowledged it was tough not playing a game for so long.
“We came in this week with the mindset of taking over,” he said when asked about the defensive effort. “We just did what we had to do to win the game tonight.”
Senior Lareko Burton, an all-state linebacker the last two seasons, said the team was motivated to erase the memory of a two-game losing streak.
“After taking two losses we came together as a team and got the job done,” Burton said. “We focused a lot on making tackles in the open field. It was difficult being on the losing streak but we got it together.”
The Chargers went on an 11-play, 59-yard scoring drive on their first possession that ended with a 12-yard Hayes run.
Jalen Fayne, who was playing his second game at quarterback in place of injured starter Carson Ruffin, broke a 30-yard TD run with 4:34 left in the second quarter to make the score 13-0.
After forcing a McNairy three-and-out, Covington put together an impressive two-minute drive that covered 68 yards. A long run by Fayne (16 carries, 97 yards) set up a 33-yard TD run by Hayes with 1:10 left before halftime to make the score 20-0.
Breshun Dyson came up with an interception early in the third quarter and returned it 47 yards to the McNairy 22. Four plays later Hayes scored on a three-yard run to put the game out of reach.
On the game’s final play, two-time cancer survivor and senior captain Jackson Hughey came in. The crowd and players went wild.
“For him to get out there tonight, that’s a special moment,” Kirby said. “You talk about football and rivalries and things like that, but if you want to talk about something more important, look at Jackson Hughey’s story. You want to talk about family, things that are real and raw, this kid is fighting for his life. For him to get out there and touch that field, it’s a special moment.”
Covington travels to Milan, which beat Covington 14-7 in triple overtime on Oct. 2, for its first playoff game.
Last week the TSSAA investigated Milan concerning two players who transferred from Liberty over the summer. No wrongdoing was found and the players are good to go, but there was a lot of chatter on Twitter and the coacht.com message boards about the matter. Many Milan fans believe somebody connected with Covington made the allegations that were investigated.
“That game is not going to be won on a message board, in the media or on Twitter,” Kirby said. “It’s going to be up to the kids. They’re going to be fired up hosting a playoff game.”
Covington was the number three seed last year as well and advanced all the way to the state semifinals, winning two road games to get there. The Covington-Milan winner plays the South Gibson-Westview winner in the state quarterfinals on Nov. 20. Covington would be on the road in that game as well.
If Covington can make it to the semifinals it would be at home, unlike last year.
Covington has not beaten Milan since the 2018 season when the Chargers defeated them in the regular season and the playoffs.
“I was proud of the defense for getting a shutout, but we’re going to have to clean a lot of those things up if we’re wanting to move on in the playoffs in a couple of weeks,” Kirby said. “There’s just no way we can beat the team we’re going to play if we make those same mistakes. They’re too good of a football team … We have had to deal with a lot of adversity this year. For us to be 8-2 for a second straight season, that’s still something to be proud of. If we can get the game into the fourth quarter with those guys and give ourselves a chance, that’s all we can ask for.”