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PADUCAH – The Central Hardin Bruins have reiterated all season that this isn’t the same ‘ole Bruins.
Battling injuries to several star players and a 3-hour bus ride, they proved it Friday night at McCracken County.
What started as a shootout turned into a defensive battle as a resilient Bruins defense didn’t allow a point after the first quarter to carry No. 8 Central Hardin to a 32-23 victory over No. 7 McCracken County in the second round of the Class 6-A playoffs at Marquette Stadium.
“After we got the vibe in the second half, we knew it was kind of up to us and we really stepped up tonight,” Central Hardin junior defensive lineman Alex Hawkins said. “We had a defensive stand all throughout the second half.”
Minus senior linebacker Ryan Kelly and sophomore running back Xavier Arnette for nearly the entire second half and with senior defensive lineman Josh Krupinski and junior quarterback Koree Krupinski both hobbled, the Bruins (11-1) still managed to advance to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997 and are vying for their first region title in school history.
“Everybody fights,” said Josh Krupinski, who was wearing a brace on his right arm because of a hyper-extended elbow. “One person goes down, the next person steps in and picks up his spot.”
They’ll have to get by a familiar foe: No. 9 Meade County (10-2), which beat No. 12 Henderson County, 28-0. The Green Wave have beaten the Bruins 14 straight times, including 34-11 on Oct. 18.
Central Hardin led 23-16 after the first quarter, but both defenses settled in. After scoring on their first three drives of the game, the Bruins came up empty on their next eight possessions as Koree Krupinski threw three of his five interceptions during the stretch.
Josh Krupinski, who came close to blocking several punts earlier in the game, finally got one with 2:29 left in the third and he nearly picked up the deflected ball before it rolled out of the end zone for a safety to put the Bruins up for good at 25-23.
“I was supposed to line up on one side, but I saw the weak spot, so I went to the other side and busted through,” Josh Krupinski said. “We had to have it right there. Everyone was kind of down when they scored (on a pick-six earlier in the quarter), so I had to make a big play for the team.”
The Bruins’ offense got going again the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-3 from the 31, Koree Krupinski hit sophomore wide receiver Justin Rouse on a play-action pass and Rouse did the rest, following a line of blockers to the end zone with 9:03 left.
“We practice plays like that over and over all year long, and sometimes we don’t run them,” Central Hardin coach Mark Perry said. “Here we’re sitting in Week 12 and we run the sucker, and it hits for a big score, one of the biggest of the game. Hats off to (offensive coordinator) Jesse (Cantrall) and the way the offense executed that play.”
McCracken County (9-3) drove all the way to the Bruin 3 on the ensuing drive, but junior Zach Helton – normally a wide receiver – tackled McCracken County running back Jordan Troutman for a 6-yard loss on third-and-goal. Hawkins stopped Mustangs sophomore quarterback Zyaire Hughes on fourth down with 2:21 left to seal the win.
Hughes entered the game with 38 total touchdowns and averaging 268 total yards per game, but the Bruins held him to 29 yards on 15 carries and 92 passing yards.
“Most of the night, we had our ends loop to keep him contained and inside the pocket,” Hawkins said. “We didn’t want him to get outside and run the ball because he’s a great athlete and so is their running back.”
Central Hardin, which won its fourth game in a row, struck first on a trick play. Helton took a pitch from Koree Krupinski and he fired his second touchdown pass of the season, a 51-yard bomb to junior wide receiver Stephen Lindsey less than 3 minutes into the game.
“I actually got really scared because I saw the lineman coming at me and Stephen was covered,” Helton said. “But he made a heck of a catch. I can’t even comprehend that catch he made.”
Hughes tied the game at 8 with a 1-yard run before Arnette scored on runs of 1 and 2 yards – the second of which came after sophomore kicker Garrett Kasey successfully executed an onside kick.
Sophomore linebacker Aaron Chandler – who replaced Kelly after he injured his ankle – had an interception in the third quarter and along with Hawkins, Josh Krupinski and senior linebacker Trey Jaco, led arguably the team’s best defensive effort of the season.
Koree Krupinski injured his non-throwing shoulder in the first half and had to be relieved by Rouse on the last possession of the first half and the first one of the second half. Though Krupinski struggled throwing the ball, he ran for 71 yards on 17 carries.
And most importantly, the defense had his back.
“That’s a side of the football that probably isn’t talked about enough of our team,” Perry said. “We talk about special teams and offense a lot because of our scoring average, but defensively, I’m really proud of the way we’re playing right now. Our guys showed a tremendous amount of heart.”
Ryan O’Gara can be reached at 270-505-1754 or firstname.lastname@example.org.