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BOWLING GREEN — As Jonah Shacklett scooped up the loose ball, he didn’t just see a touchdown.
He saw a state championship.
After Meade County senior Nick O’Brien laid a hit on Scott County running back Keith Guy, Shacklett had one man to beat for a 46-yard fumble return to give the Green Wave the lead in the Class 6-A state championship at Western Kentucky’s L.T. Smith Stadium on Saturday night.
But amidst a roar from the Meade County sideline came a whistle. The referee ruled Guy was down, nullifying the fumble.
Scott County took advantage, driving 54 yards and scoring on Clay McKee’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Scott Daniel with 40 seconds left to upend Meade County, 21-14.
“It was just a flash and then just got flashed away,” Shacklett said of the play. “Right as that whistle blew, I was mad. But it’s the ref’s judgment. (Scott County) won the championship, and they deserve it.
“I knew he wasn’t down,” he added. “He was right in front of me. He might not have been right in front of (the ref) but he was right in front of me. I saw everything, I saw the play out. It should’ve been in our favor, but it wasn’t.”
The final drive spoiled a gritty effort by Meade County (12-3), which battled back from a 14-6 deficit to tie the game on junior quarterback John Wilson’s 8-yard run with 4:34 left. Wilson ran in the conversion to tie the game.
Meade County got the ball back at its own 20 with 40 seconds left but after an incompletion, Wilson threw an interception with 25 seconds left to end it.
“We gave everything we had, and that’s all you can ask for, I guess,” O’Brien said. “It just wasn’t enough.”
Scott County (15-0) entered the game averaging 54.1 points per game, second in the state regardless of class. The Green Wave held the Cardinals to 289 yards and 33 points below their average.
While the Cardinals moved the ball early, the Green Wave stayed close by recovering two fumbles. Wilson forced a fumble on the second play from scrimmage, which senior Luke Wilson recovered at Meade County’s 19. On Scott County’s second possession, senior defensive lineman Antwan Ferguson forced another fumble, which Shacklett recovered.
“I told the guys the ball is going to come out, so you just have to strip it or do something,” said Ferguson, who was credited with a team-high 10.5 tackles. “They weren’t good at carrying the ball (in the first half). I’m not discrediting them. They did a good job, and we did too, but they were just the better team in the end.”
Scott County finally broke through after Grayson Miller picked off John Wilson at Meade County’s 26. Kevin Clausen scored six plays later for a 7-0 lead with 2:37 left in the first half.
On the ensuing kickoff, O’Brien scampered 90 yards to Scott County’s 1-yard line. John Wilson punched it in on the next play, but the 2-point conversion failed.
“There was a hole in the left side, just how we practiced,” O’Brien said of the kick return. “I just took off from there.”
Guy’s 33-yard run set up McKee’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Daniel 50 seconds before halftime for a 14-6 lead.
But when Meade County emerged from the locker room in the second half, it was a different team. Coach Larry Mofield challenged the Green Wave to be more physical in the second half, and they responded by forcing punts on Scott County’s first three possessions.
Taking over at its own 25 with 9:03 to play, Meade County went to work. Wilson ran up the middle for 8 yards before Shacklett busted through the middle for 23, the Green Wave’s second longest play of the night.
Six plays later, Wilson kept it and slithered his way to 10 yards to set up first-and-goal from the 8, before he finished it off with another keeper. Wilson ran on five of the 10 plays on the drive, plus the conversion run.
“Our line just really stepped it up and started making some holes,” said Wilson, who ran for 64 yards on 16 carries. “We really weren’t running anything that different. Our line was getting pushes and our backs were blocking well, and we were finally able to sustain a drive, which we weren’t able to do in the first half.”
That set up the play which will be replaying in Meade County’s head for years to come. After Scott County converted on third-and-6 with an 18-yard pass to its own 46, Guy looked for running room along the right edge, but O’Brien was there to greet him.
“I couldn’t see it from my side,” Mofield said. “(O’Brien) did a great job of coming up and setting the corner. Whether or not he fumbled the ball, I don’t know, but it sure was a huge play. It looked like one of the side officials was running with (Shacklett), but another one blew it dead.”
Scott County benefitted from a pass interference call and three runs of 7 yards or more to get to Meade County’s 6 before McKee threw a quick pass to Daniel, who was lined up wide left. Daniel made a move and barely crossed the goal line.
Shacklett ran for 59 yards on 12 carries, while O’Brien added 42 yards on six attempts. Meade County finished with 173 yards of offense, 166 of which came on the ground.
Coming that close to its first state title made it that much harder of a pill to swallow for Meade County, which was making its first state finals trip since 1991.
“It’s only a touchdown, and against a team that averages 54 points, it’s tough,” Ferguson said.
Ryan O’Gara can be reached at (270) 505-1754 or email@example.com.