CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Faced with a do-or-die situation Friday night against Ooltewah, the Cleveland defense attacked and the Blue Raiders survived.
The Raiders stopped the Owls inside their 10 on two occasions, the latter sealing a 26-21 victory in a big District 5-AAA matchup. The win gives the Raiders (7-3, 5-1) at least a share of the district title, and they can claim the league's top playoff spot if Bradley Central defeats East Hamilton next week.
If the Hurricanes defeat Bradley and Ooltewah defeats McMinn County, the Owls (7-2, 5-1) will have the tiebreaker edge.
Cleveland forced four Ooltewah turnovers. Senior defensive back Michael Huff had a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception.
"This is just a surreal feeling," he said. "We were up so much and didn't expect it to come down to the last play, but the defense grinded it out and we got the win. It feels amazing, knowing that we're going to the playoffs."
After a missed field-goal try by Cleveland, Ooltewah got the ball on its 20 with 2:45 remaining. They marched it down the field and had it at the Cleveland 4, but a false start pushed the ball back to the 9 and Brody Binder was pressured by Kimsey Bell, throwing an incomplete pass as time expired.
Cleveland fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, and the Owls promptly took advantage, as Desmond Pittman -- who along with linebacker Jeremiah Jackson didn't warm up prior to the game -- scored from 8 yards out. The Blue Raiders answered by scoring 26 straight points on a pair of field goals by Oscar Galvan, a 27-yard run by T.J. Parker and a 95-yard catch and run by Tyler Davis on a perfectly thrown pass by Austin Herink.
Herink also had a scoring toss to D.J. Jones, but the Owls rallied, as Pittman scored his second touchdown and Binder found Edward Hayes on a 12-yard pass to trim it to 26-21 with 8:25 remaining.
"Even when we were ahead 26-7, we never got comfortable," Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said. "We came into tonight knowing that we could only control tonight. We left one out there at East Hamilton, but the kids played hard and we got a big one tonight."
Cleveland ran off almost six minutes of clock time on its next drive before Galvan's missed field goal.
"We had a bad first half with only 23 snaps and had a couple of miscues. Cleveland's a good football team and you can't help a good football team," Ooltewah coach Mac Bryan said. "The good thing, we played poorly in the first half, but the kids have learned to handle adversity well.
"I just wish we had a little more time."
Herink had 221 yards passing and two scores, with Davis hauling in five catches for 123 yards. Pittman finished with 90 yards rushing for the Owls on 22 carries, while Binder had 163 yards passing.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.