By Dan Wright
HEBRON, Ky. – Conner scored two touchdowns in the final 9:20 to rally from a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit and defeat Montgomery County, 30-27, in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs at Fred Nevels Stadium on Friday.
The game not only featured the Cougars' late comeback, but two touchdowns of more than 60 yards in the final minute of the first half and an odd ending in which Montgomery County’s final drive ended with confusion caused by an early snap with the Indians on the Conner 27 yard line.
It was just one more entry in a list exciting playoff games the Cougars have played recently, including a record-setting, 84-48 win against Franklin County in 2011, a 31-30 loss to Anderson County that same year, and a 62-59 loss to Franklin County last year.
"I just told them I can’t get any more grey hair," said Conner head coach James Trosper. "It took us a little while to get going. They threw some different things at us and we had to get some things adjusted and we did and we came back strong in the second half."
Conner’s comeback actually began shortly before halftime, after Montgomery County had taken advantage of penalties and a muffed punt to take a 14-0 lead on senior running back Uvea Moala’s 2-yard touchdown run with 3:33 remaining in the second quarter.
Conner answered when senior quarterback Drew Barker held off a defender with his left arm while firing a strike along the sideline that junior Michael Postel leapt to catch for a 12-yard touchdown 56.1 seconds before halftime.
That was only the start of a wild finish to the half which continued when Montgomery County senior running back Aaron Botts went untouched up the middle of the field for a 74-yard touchdown on the next play from scrimmage to put the Indians ahead, 21-6.
It looked like Montgomery County would build on its momentum when the Cougars were unable to field Botts’s bouncing kickoff that followed and sophomore Christian Bowling recovered the ball for the Indians on the Conner 31 with 30.6 seconds remaining in the half.
Montgomery County sophomore quarterback Chaiten Tomlin threw four incomplete passes, however, giving the ball back to the Cougars with 1.5 seconds left in the half.
That proved to be just enough time for Barker, who has committed to the University of Kentucky, to fire a pass that was deflected 60 yards down field and into the arms of senior Brian Loney. Loney, who was behind the last line of the Montgomery County defense, easily ran the remaining 10 yards to the end zone, with a two-point pass from Barker to Andrew Way pulling Conner to within seven, 21-14, at halftime.
"That was monumental for us," Loney said. "It basically put us back in the game and gave us a chance to compete."
"That was a killer," said Montgomery County head coach Dan Gooch. "We should have just got out of there (and run out the clock). It cost us. We were trying to get as many points as we could before half and make sure we had a good lead."
The Indians were able to stop Conner on downs inside the Montgomery County 30 twice in the third quarter, and even expanded their lead back to 13, 27-14, when Tomlin and junior receiver Joe Chism hooked up for their second touchdown of the game with 10:52 remaining in the game.
Tomlin finished 13 of 25 passing for 225 yards with two touchdown passes. Botts ran 17 times for 169 yards as the Indians gained 244 yards rushing and 469 yards in all in the game.
Conner had 397 yards, with Barker going 17-for-28 passing for 233 yards with three touchdowns and rushing 11 times for 49 yards.
It was players other than Barker who delivered the two touchdowns that gave Conner its first and only lead of the game.
"They are going to key on Drew and when they do, we’ve got to be able to go the other way and that’s what we did tonight," Trosper said.
Senior receiver Austin Way caught seven passes for 85 yards, including a 41-yard screen pass from Barker that, combined with a two-point conversion reception from Barker, cut Montgomery County’s lead to five, 27-22, with 9:20 remaining in the game.
Shortly after Montgomery County turned the ball over on downs at the Conner 43 with 6:36 remaining, Barker hit Postel for a 27-yard pass over the middle, setting up senior Jesse McKeehan for a 21-yard touchdown run that put the Cougars ahead with 4:13 remaining.
"My guard pulled and took out the outside backer and I saw a hole. I just hit it, made a couple of moves and got in the end zone," said McKeehan, who finished with 75 yards on six carries. "They were probably thinking Drew was going to pull it because we had some fakes with him. I think they were focused on him and I just had the hole."
Tomlin engineered one final drive for Montgomery County down to the Conner 27, but on fourth-and-one with 46.6
seconds remaining, few players moved initially after an early snap and Tomlin was stopped short of the first down.
"It looked like a false start," said McKeehan, a defensive back on defense. "Everybody thought it was a false start and then they ended up not getting the first down."
"We snapped the ball early," said Gooch. "It came down to that. It’s just a mental mistake, but the kids, they played hard. They battled."
While Montgomery County’s season ended at the hands of the Cougars for the second straight season, Conner move on to play Anderson County next week, buoyed by the confidence of Friday night’s comeback win.
"It’s big for us as a team," Loney said. "It really sets the tone for the rest of the playoffs and how we’re going to finish up the year and the success we could potentially have."
MONTGOMERY CO. 7-14-0-6—27
at CONNER 0-14-0-16—30
MC-Chism 21 pass from Tomlin (Blevins kick)
MC-Moala 3 run (Blevins kick)
C-Postel 12 pass from Barker (kick failed)
MC-Botts 74 run (Blevins kick)
C-Loney 69 pass from Barker (Way pass from Barker)
MC-Chism 18 pass from Tomlin (kick failed)
C-Way 41 pass from Barker (Way pass from Barker)
C-McKeehan 21 run (Loney pass from Barker)
RECORDS: Conner 8-3; Montgomery County 6-4.