The East Ridge Pioneers left nothing to chance Friday night in their must-have District 6-AA game with the unpredictable Red Bank Lions.
Despite the energy generated by a homecoming crowd, Pioneers coach Tracy Malone knew the Lions have been doing their best work in district games (2-0) as opposed to the rest of their schedule (0-4). Determined to win the game in the trenches, Malone put the ball in the hands of veteran quarterback JoJo Tillery and took his chances.
Leading the Pioneers back from a halftime deficit, the 5-foot-5 Tillery carried the ball a staggering 29 times, gaining 113 yards and scoring two second-half touchdown as East Ridge rallied for a 20-6 victory at Raymond James Stadium,
Tillery also threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Darius Moore to open the fourth quarter for the Pioneers, who at 3-1 in 6-AA have bounced back from last week's district loss to Hixson.
Malone said there was no hesitation on putting the burden on Tillery.
"He's started 17 games for us now. He's been in the battle for awhile now," the coach said. "The harder the yardage is, the harder he works to pick it up."
While East Ridge's only turnover of the night -- a fumbled snap by Tillery -- led to Red Bank's only score, it was the type of game Malone was counting on.
"This was what we expected," Malone said. "Whoever played four quarters of fundamental football would win it. We exchanged turnovers with them there in the first half, but other than that, it was a well-played game. We were very happy with the defense, because their quarterback (James Robinson) scares me to death. To hold them to six points is quite an achievement."
But it seemed for a time those six points would be enough for the Lions. One play after East Ridge's C.J. Baker intercepted Robinson, Tillery handed the ball right back on the bobble -- Demarcus Rivers recovering for Red Bank. Darius Akridge, whose workload was surprisingly small Friday night, went the final yard with 6:32 left in the first quarter. That would be it for the first half as East Ridge refused to open up the offense.
But Red Bank's offense went from tepid to stone cold in the second half as penalties piled up negative-yardage plays to keep the hole. Coach E.K. Slaughter had seen enough as the third quarter wound down, so he called a timeout on third and 11 from his own 28. The product of that time out was a flanker pass that was triple-covered by the alert Pioneers, Kolbe King picking it off and returning it 30 yards.
It took six plays -- all runs -- to put the ball in the end zone from there, the Pioneers taking a 7-6 lead on Tad Whitaker's dying-quail extra point. But after a three-and-out, the Lions punted and the Pioneers covered 59 yards in three plays. Tillery went 41 yards on first down and two plays later found Moore wide open.
The clinching drive was a 90-yarder that ate up most of the fourth quarter, but a roughing-the-kicker penalty kept it alive early and the field was flipped on a 55-yard dash by sophomore back Dquantis Jones. The 5-3 burner managed to stay in bounds and finally went down 10 yards after being shoved.
It was his only carry of the night. Tillery got to the end zone with 1:21 to play, and the Gatorade got to Malone a few minutes after that.
The Pioneers are off this week, while the Lions have another important road trip, to Hixson.
Contact David Jenkins at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.