The LaRue County Hawks staged one of the best comebacks in the KHSAA playoffs Friday night.
It might not be the greatest comeback in terms of margin, but it’s the latest one.
To put it in context, think of the Buffalo Bills in 1993 when they came back in the second half to beat the Houston Oilers.
The Hawks did the impossible.
They rallied from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter to turn it into a stunning 40-32 victory over the Elizabethtown Panthers to advance to the state semifinals for the first time since 1991.
LaRue County ended a six-game losing streak to Elizabethtown, which beat the Hawks, 42-14 on Oct. 12.
“We’re different from the last time we played them,” LaRue County senior center Chase Baker said. “We’ve grown up a whole lot more. We’ve been fighting and grinding a whole lot more. We just stepped up when we needed to step up. We executed when we needed to execute.”
LaRue County (8-5) plays at Louisville Central (11-2) on Friday in the state semifinals. The Yellow Jackets, who haven’t allowed a point in the playoffs, shut out Russell, 26-0 for their eighth straight victory.
Elizabethtown led by 19 points after the first quarter and still held a 25-12 advantage at halftime.
“At halftime Coach (Josh) Jaggers lit a fire under us and we came out and were ready to do our thing,” LaRue County junior Mark Goode said. “It obviously paid off.”
Not at first.
The Hawks turned the ball over on their first two possessions of the third quarter, the second an interception by junior Love Grimes, who returned it 22 yards to the Hawk 26.
Elizabethtown (8-5) scored with 2:08 left in the third quarter to build a 32-12 lead on Joseph Becherer’s 4-yard run.
“We came out and executed what we wanted,” said Becherer, who rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns. “We just couldn’t finish it off. They deserved to win. They were the better team. We made more mistakes than we should have and it cost us.”
The Hawks (8-5) began their comeback with an eight-play, 58-yard drive. Senior Russell Young dove into the end zone from a yard out to pull the Hawks within 32-18 with 11:31 remaining.
The Panthers gambled on a fourth-and-1 from the Hawk 39 on their ensuing possession and LaRue County stopped senior fullback Trayjan Bradley for no gain.
“We started going to some different fronts,” Jaggers said. “We’re able to be multiple fronts out of our stuff just by moving people around. When they went to their spread stuff we were able to kick it to a 50 look and we were bringing an edge rusher – we were mixing it up on who was coming and who was dropping. We kept them guessing if we were coming front side or back side. It obviously seemed to help.”
Sophomore Connor Baker hooked up with junior Mark Goode for a 16-yard gain, and a play later, sophomore Jeremiah Belton took a pitch to the right and cut all the way across the field for a 43-yard touchdown to trim the deficit to 32-24 with 7:59 left.
Elizabethtown mishandled an onside kick and the Hawks recovered at the 50. LaRue County needed eight plays — all running — to find the end zone with senior Anthony Adkins scoring on a 5-yard run. Baker added the conversion run to tie it at 32 with 4:39 remaining.
The Hawks recovered another onside kick, this time at their own 43. Adkins carried the ball five times for 51 yards, including the final 13 to give the Hawks their first lead. Baker’s 2-point conversion run made it 40-32 with 31 seconds left.
“He’s a man-child,” Goode said. “I would hate to tackle him. He played his butt off tonight.”
The Panthers, who didn’t have the ball for more than eight minutes, had one last possession, but sophomore Clay Games had two incompletions and LaRue County came up with two sacks to seal the win.
LaRue County racked up 449 of total offense with 417 coming on the ground. Adkins, the Louisville commit, rushed for 214 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. Belton added 116 yards on 12 attempts.
“They’ve never been able to quick pitch against us before,” Elizabethtown coach Mark Brown said. “We made some mistakes and we didn’t tackle like we did the first time. It seemed like we were just bouncing off them.”
The Panthers raced out to a 12-0 lead. Senior Noah Peeler scored on 5-yard run on the opening possession, and after an Adkins fumble, Games had a 9-yard scoring run with 7:13 left in the first quarter.
LaRue County answered on its ensuing possession when senior Zach Duvall scored on a 49-yard run to cut the deficit to 12-6.
Becherer had scoring runs of 15 and 40 yards to push Elizabethtown’s lead to 25-6 with 25 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The Panthers had two opportunities to extend the lead, getting inside the LaRue County 30 twice. But they turned the ball over once and were forced to punt after a 22-yard loss on third down.
LaRue County took advantage after the punt. Adkins, who only had 28 yards on his first nine carries, broke free for a 67-yard gain. He finished off the drive with a 3-yard run to get the Hawks within 25-12 with 1:42 left before halftime.
Elizabethtown wasted another scoring opportunity in the first half after reaching the LaRue County 30, turning the ball over on downs with 46 seconds remaining.
“We had a couple of chances in the first half to score more,” Brown said. “We had our chances and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
The Panthers had a string of three consecutive region championships come to an end when it looked certain they were going to add a fourth one.
“We’ve got to finish,” Elizabethtown senior Gary Galloway said. “That’s something we’ve talked about. We got too relaxed and you see what happens when you let up.”