CLEVELAND, Tenn. — There may never be another time when a high school football coach will celebrate a 42-yard loss by his quarterback.
For Walker Valley's Drew Akins, Friday night was an exception.
Only a handful of people knew what was going on as Mustangs quarterback Tucker Pope took a fourth-down snap and took off running backward toward — seemingly — the wrong end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Akins and his staff were in that handful, though, and when Pope fell down as the clock ticked under 40 seconds remaining in the game against Powell in the first round of the TSSAA Class 5A playoffs, the home team's coach started jumping up and down in celebration. He knew that the Panthers, with no timeouts remaining, couldn't stop the clock with the Mustangs ahead 21-16, having taken the lead for good in the final 10 minutes.
"I'm proud of our coaching staff for putting that (idea) in my ear," Akins said after celebrating with both the team and the band after closing out the win. "It was also good execution by Tucker in making it happen."
And like that, the Mustangs improved to 8-2 by securing the first home playoff win in their school's 20-year history.
The win over the Panthers, who finished 8-3, advances Walker Valley to a second-round matchup next week at Knoxville West (10-1), which topped Lenoir City 65-20.
Walker Valley's win was predicated on discipline and defense: The Mustangs forced five turnovers, including three Lane Miller interceptions, and Pope rushed for a score and found receiver Brody Swafford for touchdown passes of 60 and 50 yards.
"We've got the best coaches in high school football," said Miller, who has six interceptions in his past three games and seven this year. "(Defensive coordinator Taylor) Harvey, he's just the best, man. I've been coming out with a new level of confidence and just being able to do my thing."
The Panthers shot themselves in the foot repeatedly. Along with their five turnovers, they had 13 penalties for 95 yards, including two that wiped out touchdowns.
Walker Valley was whistled for three infractions totaling 35 yards, including a delay of game taken prior to the late Pope scramble, which dropped his rushing total from 60 yards to 18. He passed for 162 yards, with five completions going to Swafford and covering 126 yards. Heath Tanksley officially led the team in rushing with 58 yards.
Jarvis Stockton Jr. led the Panthers with 74 yards on the ground, while Jordan Brown had 68 on just six carries and each scored a touchdown.
"We've asked our seniors, 'What legacy do you want to leave here?'" Akins said. "What this win does for us now is we've left the legacy of winning playoff games here, of hosting playoff games, of winning playoff games, of being one of the best teams in the area.
"I think this win solidifies this senior class and makes Walker Valley a program like that."
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