Lebanon’s Nick Bush returned a free kick 59 yards to score in the fourth quarter, turning the tide for good, and the Pioneers went on to take a 21-12 win over Gate City in Saturday’s Region D, Division 2 championship game at Virginia-Wise.
The Pioneers (8-4) advanced to face Radford (10-2) at Lebanon next Saturday.
“The last time we got to play a state semifinals game at home, Powell Valley and Thomas Jones beat us by a 2-point conversion,” said Pioneers coach John Adams.
The final quarter of Saturday’s game — the second of a Region D championship doubleheader at Carl Smith Stadium — was nearly as wild as that fabled showdown of the 1990s.
Trailing 12-7 headed into the final period, Lebanon mounted a 15-play drive that eroded six minutes off the fourth-quarter clock. The threat ground to a halt at the Blue Devils’ 4-yard line thanks to a goal-line stop shared by Seth Clark and Logan Russell.
Lebanon’s defense kept Gate City’s offense pinned behind the 5. Rather than risk a blocked punt on fourth-and-long, Dusty Clark ran the ball out of the end zone for the safety.
With the Blue Devils clinging to a 12-9 lead, Dusty Clark executed the unmolested free kick from the 20. Bush took it at the Lebanon 41, found a seam in the coverage as he crossed midfield, and stunned the crowd with his footwork.
The Pioneers experienced a couple of special teams snafus earlier. These included Bob Jones’ fumble at the end of a 30-yard kickoff return to start the second half and Seth Clark’s block of an Andrew Jessee punt attempt later in the third quarter.
Bush’s TD scramble was adequate compensation.
“We’ve been practicing (the kicking game) a lot more. At the first of the year, that was killing us. We knew we had to get special teams working before we could advance any further,” said Bush, who also redeemed a first-half fumble with a subsequent fumble recovery.
Gate City coach Bill Houseright issued a “mea culpa” after the game for ordering the safety. But Adams thought giving up two was the high-percentage call under the circumstances.
“That was the thing to do, to take the safety and kick the ball to get out of the end zone,” Adams said. “We just made a play.”
It would take another big one before the Pioneers — who lost four fumbles — could finally breathe easily.
A holding flag hobbled Gate City’s next possession, depriving Dusty Clark of a 32-yard completion to Trey Clark. The drive died after Dusty Clark’s fourth-and-long toss to Joseph Vaughn was stuffed for a loss of 3.
Lebanon took over at the Gate City 28 with 1:38 remaining in the game. On the third snap, Jessee bounced outside and scrambled 22 yards for the 21-12 lead with 50 seconds showing.
“We ran it three times in a row. On the third, Coach Adams said to take a step back for a couple seconds and everybody cut. When everybody cut everything just swarmed to the middle,” Jessee said.
“I just saw the outside so I took off with it. I didn’t expect to score. But once I was open, I just ran as fast as I could.”
Jessee, the Pioneers’ signal-caller, passed for 167 yards, including a 22-yard TD pass to Nick Smith with 53 seconds. That play — set up by a Jones interception — marked the only score of a first half that otherwise proved a defensive quagmire for both teams.
Gate City’s offense had opportunities deep into Lebanon territory twice in the first half, but came away empty-handed both times. The first chance — set up by a fumble forced by A.J. Johnson — yielded an errant 27-yard field goal attempt by Logan Byrd.
Vaughn, who led Blue Devils rushers with 135 yards on 20 carries, got Gate City back into the game with his 45-yard TD run one snap into the third quarter. He had a 28-yard scramble later in the frame to set up his 1-yard scoring plunge for the 12-7 lead.
Despite the defeat, Gate City (10-2) significantly outlasted preseason expectations in Houseright’s first season as head coach.
“It doesn’t take any more than two or three little miscues here and there to get you in a bind in a game like this,” Houseright said. “I was proud of our kids. Our kids did a great job all year long, busting their bohunkers. I wish I’d done a lot more to help them.”