When Cumberland County running back Eric Tolles was barely touched on his way to a 61-yard touchdown on the third play of Friday’s District 6-AAA showdown, all the energy in Nunley Stadium seemed gone.
After Warren County had its first two drives end with a fumbled exchange and interception, Pioneer fans started preparing for the worst.
Why wouldn’t the home crowd, which had seen Warren County lose its last 15 games, seven of which happened at Nunley Stadium? Instead of slipping back into old habits though, the Pioneers persevered and big plays followed.
When Lee Carden, who started only his second game at quarterback, connected with Jeremiah Lance on a 62-yard touchdown late in the first quarter, the Pioneers had the crowd going. Seconds later, Warren County would have its first lead of 2012.
Drew Davidson snuck in for a two-point conversion after a botched snap on the extra point, putting the Pioneers ahead for good.
With Carden leading the air arsenal with three touchdowns and junior running back Cameron Lusk bowling over Jet defenders on his way to 160 yards rushing, the Pioneers blew out the Jets 37-13.
It was a far cry from the first two weeks of the season as Warren County suffered a 50-0 defeat to DeKalb County, made worse by the team losing its top two quarterbacks, and lost to Shelbyville 47-13.
The common theme from the first two weeks was the Pioneers’ inability to make big plays on offense, while their opponents seemingly had their way with the Warren County defense.
Coach Tommy Johnson’s team flipped the script Thursday and it landed the Pioneers at the top of the District 6-AAA standings for the first time in Johnson’s three-year tenure.
Carden had three touchdown passes, two accounting for the longest plays from scrimmage for the Pioneers this season. When Lance caught a pass while streaking down the opponents sideline and raced 62 yards to the endzone, it surpassed a 44-yard scamper by Tristan Reish a week before.
It would only take two quarters though before the Pioneers had a new season-long gain. On the second play of the second half, Warren County used play action to perfection to get junior jitterbug D’Andre League the ball.
League, whose small stature makes him a tough tackle in the open field, hauled in a pass near midfield from Carden and made six Jet defenders miss before coasting into the endzone for an 81-yard pitch and catch.
The play-action pass worked wonderfully thanks mostly to the running of Lusk and Tristan Reish.
In the preseason, coach Johnson singled out Lusk many times for his physical stature and ability to pound opposing defenses into submission. The first two weeks weren’t kind to the junior running back as two fumbles and only 39 yards rushing weren’t the numbers expected.
Lusk broke out in a big way against the Jets, rushing for 160 yards on 14 carries as he punished Cumberland County defenders. Lusk had a number of runs where defenders bounced off him, including a 44-yard TD run in the second quarter to put the Pioneers ahead 22-7 at halftime.
Reish made it back-to-back weeks with a big play in the running game as he scored his second touchdown on a 24-yard run early in the second quarter.
The Pioneers got their full arsenal of offensive weapons in the action late when Mitchell Ashford scooped up a low pass from Carden in the endzone for an 8-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Coach Johnson was quick to praise his team following the game, noting all the hard work that finally paid off.
“It feels good to win,” said Johnson. “We’ve worked hard and knew we were a better team than what we had showed. I give the guys a lot of credit for fighting through adversity and staying focused.”
The Pioneers still had lapses defensively against the Jets, most notably on the Telles’ touchdown run where Warren County focused more on the pass and left creases up the middle, but the results were much better than the previous weeks.
After allowing 16 plays of 20-or-more yards in the first two weeks, nine of which went for touchdowns, the Pioneers surrendered just two such plays against the Jets. The touchdown run by Telles was one, while the other was Jordan Buckner’s 32-yard touchdown run in the third quarter when Warren County was caught offguard by the option look the Jets backup quarterback brought to the table.
Aaron McKinley had a huge night for the Pioneers on defense. The senior defensive end finished with eight tackles and a forced fumble, which came immediately after the Pioneers had fumbled on their first possession.
Reish, Ethan Turner and Dylan George were also big contributors to the Pioneers allowing their lowest point total since Warren County beat the Jets 43-21 in 2010, which was the last win for the Pioneers before Thursday night’s victory.
With the win, Warren County improved to 1-2 this season and, more importantly, 1-0 in District 6-AAA. Thanks to playing a night before Cookeville defeated White County, Warren County was the first District 6-AAA team to win in 2012 and held the top spot alone for 24 hours.
The Pioneers’ next district game will be against Cookeville on Friday, Sept. 14.
Warren County will hit the road this week to play the Smith County Owls.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m.