Bradley Central had not returned an interception for a touchdown all season. Friday against Ooltewah, it was harder to tell which interception returned for a touchdown was bigger.
Perhaps the two were equal, because mathematically without them the Bears wouldn't have recorded their 41-39 District 5-AAA high school football victory at Ooltewah.
After trailing by three points at halftime, Bradley was leading by four thanks to a busted coverage by the Owls on the first play of the second half. Later in the third quarter, Justin Houston caught a deflection off an Ooltewah receiver's hands and returned it 31 yards to the end zone to make it 35-24.
Jay Rudwall's 2-yard blast off left tackle with 8:50 to play, coupled with the conversion pass he caught from Bradley Stephens, had the Owls within 35-32. The ensuing three-and-out by Bradley (5-2, 3-0) appeared to be just what the Owls needed, until the second play of their possession when Rue Goldston took an interception 54 yards the other way.
"We haven't had many interceptions all year, much less for touchdowns," Bradley coach Damon Floyd said. "If we didn't have those two pick-sixes, we don't win. We didn't stop them all night."
Stephens, who also threw an interception on the game's first possession, ended up 28-of-47 for 334 yards and two touchdowns.
"They're fast," Floyd said of the receivers for Ooltewah (5-3, 2-2). "The big thing is they make you make tackles. I thought a lot of times we were in position and missed. You miss a tackle against those guys and they'll probably take it to the house."
When asked if that many passes were in the original game plan, Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams said, "Absolutely not. That was by necessity."
The Bears jumped to a two-touchdown lead and were up 21-7 at the end of one quarter. Although the Owls never led after the first play of the third quarter, they did outscore Bradley 17-0 in the second quarter.
"That's just a credit to our players," Williams said. "This was not a coaches' night. The players kept playing. They've taken some punches in games and bounced back. We just seemed to be one step behind all night. They made more plays than we did."
Houston had 42- and 53-yard runs in the first quarter and finished with 126 yards on 15 carries and one rushing touchdown. Bryce Copeland had 181 of his 202 yards of total offense through the air with three TD passes, two to James Stovall and one to Cal Pickel.
After a late Ooltewah touchdown, Bradley's Deshawn McCleary recovered an onside kick with 1:13 to play, and the Bears ran out the clock.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.