COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — With the season and a state championship on the line, Fayetteville put its football fate in the hands of a freshman.
Facing fourth-and-2 at the South Pittsburg 29-yard line late in the fourth quarter of a tie game Friday evening, freshman running back K.J. Jackson took a handoff and sprinted untouched for the go-ahead touchdown with just 3:08 remaining in the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium.
Fighting the clock and a stingy defense, South Pittsburg took the ensuing possession to the Fayetteville 19, but Brayden Sanders' pass into the end zone fell incomplete as the Tigers held on to win 20-14 and celebrate the program's first TSSAA state title.
"No excuses. We just didn't get it done," Pirates coach Vic Grider said. "We struggled offensively to put drives together, and that's highly unusual for us. We had it down there close and didn't come away with any points.
"We didn't play our best football when we needed to, and it's disappointing."
Fayetteville (13-2), a program less than a decade old, was in the playoffs for the fifth time — three of those trips had ended with a loss to South Pittsburg — and in a BlueCross Bowl for the first time.
South Pittsburg (13-2), which was making its 12th appearance in the title game but settles for runner-up for the seventh time, took the opening possession and drove to the Fayetteville 1. But three plays netted no yards as De'Andre Kelly was stopped inches shy of the goal line and the Pirates were turned away with no points.
Two series later, Hunter Frame's 34-yard interception return to the Tigers' 4 set up the game's first score as Kelly cut back into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown in the final minute of the first quarter.
The rest of the first half, though, belonged to Fayetteville, which began to dominate up front. A short touchdown pass by the Tigers was followed by the first scoring run of the night for Jackson, who was named MVP of the game after rushing for 210 yards on 30 carries.
That total helped Fayetteville outrush the Pirates 274-167 as Frame, a Tennessee Titans Mr. Football finalist, managed just 94 yards on 23 carries and did not score for the first time in his senior season.
"For whatever reason, they just manhandled us up front on both sides of the ball," Grider said. "That goes back on me and us as coaches. We didn't expect that, but they control things at the line of scrimmage. I hate it for our kids and especially our seniors."
After trailing 14-7 at halftime, the Pirates drew even at the end of the third quarter on Sanders' 1-yard run and Cooper Keown's extra-point kick.
Senior offensive lineman Jared Stone, a Mr. Football finalist who also plays linebacker, left the game in the first half with a knee injury and did not return. A South Pittsburg offense that had 31 touchdown runs of 20-plus yards coming into the game was held to just one run of more than 15 yards, and that came on the desperate final drive.
"It definitely hurt losing someone like him, because he's a leader up front for us," Frame said. "It's a huge honor just to be able to play here. There's a lot of people who have come through our school and other schools who never get to step foot on this field and play in this type game.
"This team has been a family to me for the past four years. I've made a lot of amazing friends, and I'm sad to have to go. The guys who will be back next year need to remember this feeling and make sure they don't feel like this again."
South Pittsburg's loss came a day after McCallie repeated as the Division II-AAA champion, and the Chattanooga area will have a shot at one more football state title this year when Meigs County plays in the Class 2A BlueCross Bowl on Saturday.