Star: Lenoir's Jaylond Woods ran for 179 yards and two TDs.
Up next: Rhea County (10-1) will host Cleveland (8-3).
EVENSVILLE, Tenn. - For the first time since 2008, Rhea County was back in the state football playoffs and the Eagles made the most of it Friday, beating visiting Lenoir City 35-24 in the first round of Tennessee's Class 5A playoffs.
They'll remain at home next week to host Cleveland in the round of 16. To get there, though, they had to score two second-half touchdowns to erase a 24-21 halftime deficit.
The win pushed Rhea County to its seventh 10-win season and further enhanced one of the school's greatest turnarounds. The Eagles were 2-8 and 1-5 in District 5-AAA last year and completed the 2013 regular season 9-1 and 6-0 for the District 6-AAA championship.
It was slash vs. smash in the first half and Lenoir City took the lead on touchdown runs of 79 and 67 yards and a tiebreaking 21-yard field goal by Dakota Vincil with 10 seconds remaining in the second quarter. After Woods tweaked an ankle while on defense, smash won out as Rhea finished with 232 yards on 52 carries.
"That's what we have to do. That's what Rhea County's done for years and years and years, back to Coach [Bill] Horton's years," first-year Rhea coach Mark Pemberton said. "That's what fits our kids and our community and what we're going to continue to do."
While Demetrius Patterson ran for 104 yards, big fullback Jacob York, back after missing two games with a high-ankle sprain, was a big part of the Eagles' smash and scored twice.
"It feels really good to be back, especially the first game of the playoffs," he said. "The offensive line is amazing. They're incredibly strong and they're really good men."
Rhea County's defense came up big also and pitched a shutout over the final two periods, The Eagles were so stingy that the Panthers were limited to just 23 second-half plays, and they also caused and recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass.
Turnovers were Lenoir City's Achilles' heel. The first of the interceptions (by Cody Bice on the Panthers' first possession) led to Rhea's first TD, a 2-yard run by quarterback Austin Dotson, and a fumble recovery by C.J. Shelton set up the Eagles for Jacob York's go-ahead TD in the third period. Holden Doss' fourth-quarter pickoff pretty much sealed the win for Rhea County.
"We work on playing hard on every play and getting 11 guys to the ball. If we get a chance to strip one, we'll take it," Pemberton said.
Prior to Doss's interception -- the lineman, who had dropped off in coverage, was probably as surprised as Lenoir City players -- Rhea County extended its lead to 14 on a 6-yard pass from Dotson to Taylor Jenkins with 9:27 to play. It was a big play, and Jenkins also pulled in a key third-and-long pass to keep the scoring drive alive.
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.