Maybe all it took for the Warren County High School football team to play its best game this season was to see its rivals across the sidelines.
The Pioneers (0-5) battled the Cookeville Cavaliers to a 10-10 stalemate at halftime before giving up 28 straight points in the second half to fall 38-16 at home in the District 6-AAA matchup.
The Cavaliers’ (3-2) second-half rally ruined a record-setting performance by Pioneer sophomore quarterback Hunter Mullican. Mullican threw for over 300 yards, finishing 26-of-46 for 311 yards and his first touchdown pass of the year.
Mullican’s first-half touchdown toss to D’Andre League gave the Pioneers their first lead of the season, 10-3 with 3:45 left in the second quarter, but Cookeville answered back with a touchdown in the final 30 seconds of the half and would use the momentum to rally for a big second half.
Coach Tommy Johnson saw improvement all around from his team. From Mullican’s big day to the ability of the Pioneers to limit miscues, coach Johnson thinks the team finally may be on the right track.
“I’ve been telling the team if we limit mistakes we can play with anybody,” said Johnson. “We played a good first half, but then the mistakes crept in late.
“We’re going to keep plugging along and keep trying to improve every week.”
The start of the game was reminiscent of many Pioneer games this season as Warren County turned it over early and its opponent turned the mistake into points.
League was stuffed for no gain after taking the first snap under center in a new formation for Warren County. Mullican entered on the next play but started off rocky.
Mullican sprinted upfield after getting pressured and looked to have turned the play into a four-yard gain. As the quarterback was going to the ground however, he fumbled and Cookeville recovered at the Pioneer 39.
After the Pioneer defense held the Cavaliers to a fourth down, Jacob Zalewski booted a 40-yard field goal to make it 3-0 with 8:03 remaining in the first quarter.
Warren County was undeterred by the slow start though. Mullican led his team on a 10-play, 41-yard drive that featured the quarterback hitting three different receivers. Sophomore Johnny Smith capped the drive with a 35-yard field goal, the first of his career, to tie the game at three with 4:44 left in the first.
Coach Johnson elected to try an onside kick on the ensuing possession, but Cookeville wasn’t fooled. The Cavaliers took over in prime field position, but the Pioneer defense turned back Cookeville.
Warren County took over and had a promising drive stall at midfield, but a Cavalier mistake was right around the corner.
At their own 36, Cavaliers quarterback J.D. Edgington couldn’t handle a snap and Pioneer senior captain MaCrae Thomsen came out of the pile with the ball. A sack ruined the Pioneers field position though, as Ricardo Duenas was called upon to punt for the second of six boots for the senior.
Cookeville then mounted a big drive from its own 17, moving the ball to the Warren County 5 with a 36-yard completion from Edgington to Desmond Pincheon.
The Pioneers defense was up to the challenge at the goal line as Cookeville tried to pound the ball with Ross Davidson. The bruising tailback tried four straight plays to score, but was turned back each time as Warren County took over possession at its own 5.
What followed was the longest drive of the season for Warren County. Mullican got the Pioneers out of the shadows of their goal posts by connecting with Mitchell Ashford for 22 yards on a go route. The drive looked over though when Duenas was called on to punt on fourth-and-seven at the Warren County 30, but Cookeville tackled the punter after the kick and was flagged for a personal foul.
Mullican used the new opportunity to hook up with League over the middle for 16 yards on the next play. League made a sliding catch, which frustrated his defender. Cookeville’s defensive back stood demonstratively over League and protested the catch call, prompting the officials to call another personal foul.
Three plays later, Mullican connected with League on a slant and the speedy sophomore went 24 yards and dove over the left pylon to give Warren County its first lead in 2011. Smith’s extra point made it 10-3 with 3:45 to go.
Cookeville was able to knot the score right before half though. Edgington led his team on a 11-play, 65-yard drive which concluded with the Cavalier quarterback calling his own number from five yards out with 30.6 seconds left in the first half.
The Pioneers never were the same after Edgington hit Ryan Eberle for a nine-yard touchdown pass on the seventh play of the second half.
Cookeville would go on to score on three of its next four possessions, with the only one not producing points ending on a 24-yard missed field goal. Davidson rushed for two of the scores, while Nathan Holland added a two-yard touchdown run.
The Pioneers got their final points when Cameron Lusk dove in from two yards out on a fourth-and-goal with 34.5 seconds left in the game. Smith’s extra-point try was blocked, keeping the Pioneers from setting a new-season high in points.
On offense, Mullican’s 311 yards through the air were countered by the Pioneers losing 43 yards on 18 carries, including six sacks on Mullican. Rutledge also had a record-setting night, grabbing 10 passes for 108 yards. It was the first game a Warren County receiver had over 10 catches in over a decade.
Defensively, Aaron McKinley, David Lee, Tristan Reish and Ethan Turner had eight stops apiece. Turner added his second sack of the season in the third quarter.
The Pioneers start the second half of the season Friday night with a road game against Moore County. Kickoff in Lynchburg will be at 7 p.m.