By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
MANCHESTER—The 33-6 final scores looks like an easy win for North Laurel. It doesn’t tell the whole story, like a modest 10-6 halftime lead for the Jaguars. North Laurel scored 16 points in the fourth quarter to make a rugged game with Clay County look tame.
“I thought we played uninspired today. I don’t know why,” North Laurel coach Chris Larkey said. “We played flat.”
Maybe it was the Saturday game or the fact it was televised on WYMT. Larkey wondered out loud if his team might be reading their own press clippings about how good they are. For whatever reason, Larkey did not see the emotion he expected when playing in Manchester.
“It’s a rivalry. It’s Clay County. You would think kids would get pumped up for it,” Larkey said.
In the end, North Laurel did what North Laurel does best. Michael Nelson rushed for 138 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Gabe Blair muscled out 134 tough yards. The Jaguars looked like the better team in the fourth quarter.
“We told them all week it was going to be hard to score. It was until our guys started wearing them down,” Larkey said.
Clay County came into the game with two losses and had yet to score a point. They ended the shutout streak in the second quarter and had a chance to get their first win.
“Hats off to Clay County. They’ve got a pretty good football team. They are still finding what they do the best,” Larkey said.
North Laurel drove to the Clay County 22-yard line on its first possession. The Tigers defense held and the Jaguars had to settle for a 46-yard Keaton Kennedy field goal.
On its first possession of the second quarter, North Laurel drove 90-yards, capped by a 1-yard Nelson plunge for a 10-0 lead. The Jaguars needed two key third down conversions on the drive. On third-and-9, Nelson connected with Jake McFadden on a 14-yard gain. Nelson ran for 18 yards on a third-and-5 later in the drive.
Clay County had some success moving the ball, but didn’t get a payoff until 2:26 in the half. A three-and-out series by North Laurel gave the ball to the Tigers. The first play was a screen pass to Sam Carr that he took 60-yards to make it a 10-7 game.
“We just didn’t play it well. They did it right and we did it wrong,” Larkey said.
Clay County moved the ball to the North Laurel 17 to open the second half with the help of two facemask penalties. They actually scored the go-ahead touchdown only to have it called back for illegal procedure. The North Laurel defense took over from there. Clay County would not have another series of more than four plays.
“I thought our defense played really well tonight. The Carr kid is a great running back,” Larkey said.
The game still wasn’t pretty. One stretch late in the third quarter saw the teams exchange four fumbles in less than two minutes.
“We didn’t play tonight like we did against Williamsburg. We played tonight like we played against Claiborne County. We cannot do that because you only have 10 games all year. You have to play every game like it is your last game,” Larkey said.
The Jaguars got the better end of the exchanged fumbles and with six seconds in the quarter Blair scored on a 2-yard run. North Laurel would score on its last four possessions.
McFadden busted through the middle for an 11-yard touchdown with 6:26 to play. The Jaguars 23-6 lead wouldn’t look safe for long.
Kennedy’s kickoff hit a Clay County player in the head and was recovered by the Tigers’ Arnold Arnett. Only a tackle from the last man in Arnett’s way, the kicker Kennedy, saved the touchdown. They would reach the 5-yard line before another fumble ended the drive.
“If they score and onside kick they are right back in the football game,” Larkey said.
North Laurel needed just three plays to go 94 yards. Blair picked up 18 yards on two carries. Then Nelson broke the 76-yard run. The Jaguars got the ball right back on an interception by Isaac Napier. That led to a 25-yard Kennedy field goal.
“We’ve still got a long way to go. We haven’t peaked yet and I’m just grateful we won the ballgame because a win is a win no matter how bad it looks,” Larkey said.