PAINTSVILLE, Ky. — All Capital ever wanted from its long-distance series with Kentucky power Johnson Central was to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. The third time around, the Cougars got it right, thanks to a trio of secret weapons.
Newly slimmed-down fullback Kalai Clark burst through the line for his second touchdown, a 17-yard run with 1:29 left Friday night, giving the Cougars a dramatic 28-21 comeback victory in their season opener at Eagles Field against last year’s Kentucky 4-A runner-up.
The Cougars, who had lost their opener the last two years at Johnson Central, were down 14-0 in the first quarter and still trailed 21-14 late in the third quarter when their hidden weapons started to take over.
K.J. Figures returned a kickoff 78 yards for a touchdown to tie the score at 21 on the final play of the third quarter. Then after five fruitless possessions on both sides kept the score right there, it was time for lightning to strike again inside the two-minute mark.
On second-and-10 from his own 27, Capital quarterback Kerry Martin Jr. spun 180 degrees in the pocket, rolled along the right sideline and lofted a 56-yard pass from to sophomore K.J. Taylor to put the ball at the JC 17. On the next play, the 271-pound Clark bullied his way into the end zone to give Capital the lead.
Johnson Central self-destructed on its final possession, with three penalties forcing a fourth-and-35 from its own 11 with less than 30 seconds left. Breece Hoff tipped and intercepted a Ryley Preece pass to end the suspense.
The Eagles had beaten Capital, one of West Virginia’s top Class AAA programs, 23-6 in 2016 and 31-20 last year.
“I’m excited to death for our kids,’’ said Capital coach Jon Carpenter. “To see these guys stick together, it’s exciting.’’
Figures, Taylor and Clark didn’t get to touch the ball often Friday, but made the most of their chances. Figures had one carry from scrimmage besides his kickoff return, Taylor had only the one reception and the hefty Clark carried twice, both for TDs on plays of 39 and 17 yards in the second half.
“I lost 55 pounds over the summer,’’ Clark said. “I feel way lighter and more explosive, too. Faster.’’
Clark didn’t feel unprepared for having the game in his hands at the end. He played most of the game on the defensive line and was only called upon for carries in short-yardage situations. His first carry came on a third-and-1 play and he broke about five tackles to get into the secondary, then carried three defenders into the end zone for his first TD.
“I’m always ready,’’ Clark said. “I stay ready, so I don’t got to get ready. When it’s crunch time, you just got to go.’’
Taylor, who had a kickoff return for a touchdown in last year’s playoff game at University, was another hidden gem for the Cougars on a night when Martin (2 of 8, 60 yards) had trouble getting time to find his receivers.
“I ran my route,’’ Taylor said, “and [saw] Kerry had rolled out, and I had to get open. I just felt like I was prepared.’’
Deshaun James had Capital’s other score on a tackle-breaking 23-yard run in the second quarter that halved Johnson Central’s lead to 14-7 at the break. Martin ended with 61 yards rushing, though he’d probably have been over 100 yards if not for sacks, and James added 49 yards on seven carries.
Johnson Central seemed like it was a possession away from breaking the game open on several occasions. Senior tailback Joe Jackson, who missed almost the entire season last year with a knee injury, led the Eagles with 123 yards on 23 carries. Preece ran for 47 yards, including TD efforts of 8 and 33 yards.
Preece was 5 of 14 passing for 110 yards, with three of those connections going to Ryan Sartin-Slone for 106 yards, but Capital intercepted Preece twice and sacked him four times, once each by Clark, Hoff, Kalani Hale and Thomas Deodray.
“If it’s easy, it ain’t worth having, and if it’s worth having, it ain’t easy,’’ Eagles coach Jim Matney told his team afterward. “We didn’t play that bad. We had some really bright spots and we had some bad spots. We’ve got to learn to play four quarters of football.’’
Carpenter was ecstatic over the win, but also displeased with his team’s lack of preseason preparation because of delays in getting the new turf installed at University of Charleston Stadium.
“To be put in that situation,’’ he said, “to have to come over and play a game when you ain’t got enough practice in, and you’ve got no place to practice and you can can’t ‘em in shape ... and I got to hear all that bullcrap about safety. It’s not fair to these kids, not right to be put in that situation.’’