A roll of the dice came up snake eyes for Scott Smith Thursday night at Nunley Stadium.
The first-year Pioneer coach gambled in overtime his team could gain three yards on a two-point conversion to win the game, but junior quarterback Christian Wilkinson was stopped a yard short of the goal line in a 28-27 loss to Coffee County.
Falling for the third game in a row leaves Warren County in search of answers after a 34-30 victory on opening night in DeKalb County gave optimism the 2014 season could be one to remember. The main question on the minds of Pioneer fans leaving Thursday night: Why go for two?
“It was one of those decisions where you're either the hero or the zero,” said Smith. “It was the same play we had scored on earlier and I felt we were in a position of strength going to our strong side with a big kid. I thought we would score again.”
Smith, who was previously undefeated in overtime games, also weighed in the momentum on the other sideline and the fatigue that had crept into his side.
"It's a calculated risk. I didn't feel like we could outscore them for an extended period of time," said Smith. "Momentum seemed to have shifted their way. I didn't see us getting any more spry going forward. I'm proud of our guys for how hard they played. We had our chances to win."
It’s not the first time Smith has made risky gambles during his short time on the sideline for the Pioneers. Warren County has gone for it on fourth down 12 times this season and converted nine times. Those conversions – five of which have come when the Pioneers were on their own side of the field – have all come on touchdown drives this season.
Smith’s confidence in pressure situations was evident on opening night when he sent his offense on the field on a fourth-and-one at his own 30 in the second quarter against the Tigers. The result was a five-yard run by junior Jordan Bonner on a drive that ultimately gave the Pioneers their first lead of the season.
Smith went for it four times, and was successful each time, in Thursday’s loss against the Red Raiders. On the team’s final scoring drive in regulation, the Pioneers were faced with fourth down on three separate occasions.
Coffee County bailed out Warren County on a fourth-and-15 with a huge unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but the Pioneers powered their way to two more conversions. The final one was a two-yard run by Wilkinson on fourth-and-goal – a play that seemed very similar to the one that ended the game. Wilkinson dove into the end zone to give the Pioneers a 21-13 lead with 4:52 to play, but it was a lead the home team couldn’t protect in the final minutes.
Making the right call in the right situation is often tricky, but it seems Smith was pushing the right buttons for most of Thursday’s game.
Warren County didn’t trail until the first possession of overtime, when Coffee County freshman phenom Alontae Taylor scored his third rushing touchdown to push his team ahead 28-21. Taylor, starting only his second game at quarterback, finished the night with 143 yards rushing on 31 carries and scored three times.
The Pioneers showed resolve by answering with a score of their own – an Adrian Lusk seven-yard touchdown catch right at the pylon – before ultimately failing on the final play.
Lining up on the two-point conversion, Warren County set up in a shotgun formation with two receivers lined up to Wilkinson’s left and two backs ready to pave the way to the goal line. Unfortunately, it was an alignment Coffee County coach Ryan Sulkowski had prepared his team for in a time-out right before the final play.
“The way they aligned, we knew they’d be running sprint out. So when they put their trips and wingback over there, we knew it was either a quarterback sweep to the left or a sprint out and they were going to try to hit a short out route,” Sulkowski told the Manchester Times following the game. “When I saw (Mill Harmer) shoot through, I knew we had it and I knew it was over.”
While the Red Raiders were ready for the final play, it seemed like Warren County kept the visitors off balance early by lining up junior Rickie King at quarterback on several occasions. King came into the game averaging 11.6 yards per carry, but had only touched the ball twice in losses to Shelbyville and Cookeville.
King touched the ball on the Pioneers’ third play as a wildcat quarterback. He bust through the line for an 18-yard gain, starting a night where coach Smith made a concerted effort to get one of his top playmakers the ball.
King responded by rushing for 75 yards and two touchdowns – both coming in the first half.
King put the Pioneers ahead 7-0 on the final play of the first quarter from one-yard out, then answered Taylor’s first TD run with one of his own in the second quarter. King’s second score, a two-yard plunge through the middle, gave Warren County a 14-7 halftime lead.
Coffee County narrowed the gap on its second drive of the second half when Cody Howes turned the corner – a common theme for the Red Raiders against the Pioneer defense – to score on a 15-yard run. Howes broke several tackles on his way to slicing the Pioneer advantage to 14-13, though Warren County preserved its lead by blocking the extra point.
Howes’ scoring run was sandwiched between two solid defensive stands by the Pioneers.
Warren County stopped Coffee County’s opening drive of the second half by stopping a fourth-down try. Taylor took to the air on fourth-and-four at the Coffee County 48, but sophomore cornerback Jacob Rabideau had blanket coverage on Red Raider big-play receiver Boone Riddle.
The second stop came just before the end of the third quarter. Taylor once again was trying to pass, but sophomore linebacker Brendon Breedlove was reading his eyes the whole way. Taylor tried to fire over the middle, but Breedlove stepped in front of the pass and set the Pioneers up with great field position at midfield.
Warren County would use the next seven minutes to add to its lead as Wilkinson orchestrated a 16-play, 51-yard scoring drive. Wilkinson covered up a disastrous first play – when he was dropped for a 14-yard loss – by hooking up with senior Malik Ladet for 29 yards to open the fourth quarter.
Wilkinson would go on to lead his team to a score, one he’d put in himself on fourth down. Wilkinson came off the field doing the Johnny Manziel money hand signal, but it was the Red Raiders who were money in the clutch.
Taylor moved the Red Raiders down the field with ease to force overtime. Cole Hawkins hauled in a 30-yard pass to get Coffee County moving, then Harner got his team in the red zone with a 19-yard run.
Warren County had two chances in regulation to make a game-ending stop, but the Red Raider rushing attack was too strong for the Pioneer defense. On fourth-and-goal from the Pioneer 11, Taylor was able to corral a low snap and take off around the left edge for his second touchdown. It was part of a 326-yard night on the ground for the Red Raiders.
Coffee County still needed two points to tie and Harner got them by pushing through the Pioneers on the two-point conversion to tie the game with 1:58 left.
The Pioneers had a final shot to end the game in regulation when Wilkinson hit Ethan Fliss twice in the final 30 seconds, but the senior receiver was tackled inbounds on the final play. Fliss was stopped at the Coffee County 19 with nine second left and the Pioneers weren’t able to scramble to the line and clock the ball.
The loss snapped a two-game winning streak for Warren County against the Red Raiders, who had lost 14 straight games coming into the contest.
Warren County will be the team trying to stop a losing streak when it travels to White County Friday night. The Pioneers have lost three straight games overall, three straight to the Warriors and seven straight District 6-AAA games.
Kickoff in Sparta is set for 7 p.m.