MOUNT WASHINGTON - Like two great heavyweights, Bullitt Central and Bullitt East kept throwing haymakers at each other on Friday in the 20th renewal of The War.
In the end, a pair of long scoring drives in the second half proved to be the difference as the Cougars pulled out a 20-14 victory in a renewed rivalry that has suddenly sprung to the forefront of local football.
The win was the second in a row for the Cougars in the series and came after Bullitt East had won ten straight contests. This year, perhaps the largest crowd ever assembled in Bullitt County watched the slugfest at Bullitt East.
Both teams had missed some golden scoring opportunities in the first half and went into the break tied at 7-7. Bullitt Central answered with a 53-yard drive in 10 plays to open the second half and after holding the Chargers at the 7-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter, went the opposite direction in 13 plays.
The only other time Bullitt Central had the ball in the second half, they ran off the final 2:15 of the contest to seal the win after a late Bullitt East score.
Bullitt Central had thrown eight passes in the first half with most coming out of the pistol offense. There were also some fancy reverses and a key interception. In the second half, Cougar quarterback Damion Wibbels moved under center for most of the snaps and he handed the ball to senior running back Jeremaie Bennett on 21 of the 27 plays before Wibbels took a knee three times to run out the clock.
It was a sweet victory for Bullitt Central head coach Danny Leasor who had his 63rd birthday on Sunday, but nothing topped the celebration on Friday.
“We found a way to win,” the veteran coach said. “We found more energy in the second half. I’m so proud of the kids.
“Jeremaie ran hard and Damion played better,” the coach added. “We challenged Damion at halftime.”
Bennett finished with 121 yards on 28 carries. He scored all three touchdowns in the game for the Cougars with two coming on the ground and another on a short screen pass that he turned into a 44-yard touchdown early in the game.
“To come in here and win, it’s tough,” Leasor said. “I’m very proud of our team. This is good for our team and good for football in Bullitt County. It’s a rivalry now.”
Bennett has been a key in two Bullitt Central wins in The War.
“It was better this year since I’m a senior,” he said with a big smile after the game. “It felt good last year, but it feels real good this year.”
Bennett was not told at halftime that he would carry the ball more in the second half, but he wasn’t surprised.
“I know I’m going to run the ball,” the tailback said. “I know he’ll give me the ball and I know I can get a yard. The line wasn’t getting it together early. The line came together. I told them to get pumped up and they did their job. The line play was great tonight on both offense and defense.”
After the game, Leasor said that he didn’t tell offensive coordinator Mike Gossett to run the ball more in the second half, but it was obvious the Cougars needed to use more power and less finesse.
“We said we’re going to quit fooling around and get after them,” Leasor said. “I didn’t tell him not to throw. We pumped Damion about being a leader and turning it up field.
“Right now we run it better,” the coach added. “When we get the passing game going we’ll be a good team.”
Wibbels completed half of his eight passes in the first half including the touchdown to Bennett, but with his team up 7-0 early in the game and coming off an interception by T.J. Flener at the Bullitt East 23-yard line, the quarterback badly under threw a pass to Danny Flener who was open in the endzone. Bullitt East’s T.J. Blevins intercepted the ball at the 5-yard line.
“I really believe it would have been a much different game if we had scored at that point,” Leasor said of going up by two touchdowns early. “We had them on their heels. We expected it to be tough. Then they got one back when we should have scored.”
For the second straight week, Bullitt Central’s defense made a big stand midway through the second half. After the Cougars had gone up 14-7, Bullitt East marched from their 30-yard line to the Bullitt Central 5-yard line where they had a first down.
Three times the Bullitt Central defense rose to the occasion and pushed back the Chargers on three straight running plays. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Bullitt East quarterback Matt Bowles threw to the endzone, but the ball slipped through the hands of running back Matt Husband.
“I’d say we play better when we’re under pressure and it’s the fourth quarter,” Bullitt Central junior Jeremy VanMeter said. “When our backs are to the wall we play better. The line did great on defense. Everybody did great.”
VanMeter said that there wasn’t a lot of ranting and raving out of the coaches at halftime of the tie game.
“We just came out and played hard,” the big lineman said. “We kept our heads up and played a good ball game.”
The 53-yard drive to open the second half was done entirely on the ground. Bennett carried on eight of the ten plays while T.J. Flener had the other two carries. Bennett got the ball on the last four plays of the series to cover 12 yards including the final 2-yards for the touchdown.
After the Bullitt East failure to score on the first play of the fourth quarter, Bullitt Central went 93 yards in 13 plays and took 6:34 off the clock. There were two pass plays in this drive, an 8-yard completion to Terry Coulter and then a big third down conversion when Wibbels found T.J. Flener for 29 yards to the Chargers’ 4-yard line.
Bennett needed two plays to get the ball in the endzone to push the margin to 20-7.
Bullitt East, which had dominated play in the second quarter scoring on a 20-yard pass from Bowles to Jonathan Bernard, made another strong drive to keep their hopes alive late in the game. Most of the yardage this time came though the air as Bowles completed four straight passes before Bernard ran for 25 yards to deep in Bullitt Central territory only to have the play nullified by a clipping penalty.
When Bullitt Central’s Andrew Dodd knocked down the next pass, Bullitt East was facing a fourth and 22 situation from their own 49-yard line. Bowles had the time and he found Derek Keisler straight down the middle of the field for a 38-yard completion and a first down.
Bowles tried to run a play to the right on first down, but was stuffed. The coaches called the same play to the left and the pitch to Bernard got him to the corner and he scored from 10-yards out with 2:15 remaining in the game.
Bullitt East tried an on-sides kick, but Bullitt Central’s James Johnson jumped on the ball at midfield.
Bennett picked up 23 yards on four carries before Wibbels could start taking a knee to start the maroon and gray celebration.
The Chargers basically dropped a pair of passes in the endzone in this game adding to their frustration. They also couldn’t overpower Bullitt Central up front, something they had been able to do in the first two games of the season, but have failed at in two straight losses.
“We couldn’t stop them in that last drive,” Bullitt East head coach Doug Preston said. “What did they go, 95 yards?
“Then we had two dropped wide-open touchdown passes. One would have tied the game and the other would have put us ahead,” the second-year coach said. “You have to make plays. The bottom line is they did that and we didn’t.”
Bullitt East played without senior tackle Cyle Jaggers who suffered a knee injury the week before against DeSales. That left the Chargers very thin on both sides of the line and many of those players had to go both ways most of the time.
“We’re very thin up front right now,” Preston said. “We are just young and we try to put them in good positions to be successful.
“We want to win and we play to win,” the coach added. “But, right now we’re trying to develop the depth for the district games. That’s what matters most. But I don’t want to take anything away from Bullitt Central. They played a strong game.”
Bullitt East actually ran seven more plays than the Cougars with the big edge coming in the second quarter. The Chargers ran 59 plays for 233 total yards while Bullitt Central had 52 plays for 284 yards.
Bullitt Central’s total included 174 yards on the ground while Wibbels completed six of 10 passes for 110 yards.
The Chargers rushed for 126 yards, but it took 41 carries for that total. Bowles completed eight of 18 passes for 107 yards.
Next Games: Both teams will jump right back into the first this Friday.
Bullitt East will go back on the road for a game against rebuilt Shelby County. The Rockets won just one game last season, but are off to a 2-1 start after beating Seneca 31-30 last Friday in Louisville. The Rockets got the best of Bullitt Central in an early season scrimmage.
Game time in Shelbyville is set for 7:30 p.m.
Bullitt Central continues their four-game short road swing with a trip into Jefferson County to take on Atherton. The Rebels are struggling mightily this season under new head coach Kenneth Walker and they are now 0-4 after losing to Gallatin County 27-6 on Friday.
Bullitt Central will play at Atherton at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.