Heading into the 2016 football season, head coach Ed Smart said it would be an uphill battle for his Cougars this year.
Those words turned prophetic last Friday evening when the Cougars hosted the Hancock County Hornets in the season-opener at Cougar Field. The Hornets outplayed the Cougars in every phase of the game and beat the home squad 42-8.
The Hornets rushed for 279 yards against the Cougars, led by junior running back Tanner Singleton who finished the game with 120 yards on nine carries and scored two touchdowns. Singleton also returned an interception 75 yards for a third TD. Junior Gage Gray added 67 yards on 12 carries and one touchdown.
There were very few bright spots for Grayson County on the evening. Junior slot-back Jordan Stallings carried the ball 12 times for 78 yards and the Cougars’ only score of the game. Senior Dustin Woosley carried the ball 13 times for 65 hard-earned yards.
Grayson County trailed 15-8 at the half and was still within reach, 21-8 at the start of the fourth quarter, but the defense gave up three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 27-yard pass play for a score with 21 seconds left to play. Grayson County turned the ball over four times in the second half.
Stallings led the Cougar defense with 12 tackles, while sophomores Ethan Cates and Taylor Fentress had eight and six tackles respectively.
The Hornets had the ball to start the game, but were unable to move it on their first possession. Grayson County started their first possession at the 22, but could move only to midfield before punting the ball away.
The Hornets took over at their own 11 and started a drive that ended in the first score of the game. Five plays moved the ball to the 35, where the Hornets had a first down. A fumbled snap moved the ball back a yard before Singleton took the ball off tackle and beat every Cougar defender 66 yards for the first touchdown of the season. Michael Rates added the extra point, and with 1:27 left in the first quarter, the Hornets led 7-0.
Freshman Logan Kopp, who had a good night returning kickoffs for the Cougars, took the ensuing kickoff at the 10 and brought it back to the 30.
As the second period began, the Cougars had moved into Hornet territory at the 45. On a third-and-seven play at the 42, Stallings got loose on a 21-yard run down to the 21-yard line.
Three running plays could move the ball only to the 17, but on fourth down the Hornets were whistled for being offside and the ball was moved to the 12 where it was fourth and one. Stallings took the handoff, popped through the line of scrimmage and twisted and turned his way into the end zone, shedding three or four tacklers along the way.
When Stallings added a two point conversion, the Cougars held an 8-7 lead. It would turn out to be their only lead of the game as they would not score again.
On the next Hornets possession they moved 65 yards in 10 plays to take a lead they would not give back. The key play on the drive was a Grayson County facemask penalty on a third down that set up the Hornets with a first down at the Grayson County 45.
Senior Gage Gray carried in from 11 yards out at the 2:18 mark, then added a two-point conversion to put the visitors in front 15-8, which was the score at the half.
The Cougars had the ball to start the second half, but on a third-and-nine at the Cougar 42, sophomore quarterback Noah Bullock was picked off by senior defensive back, Andrew Anderson, who returned the ball to the Cougar 34.
The defense was able to stop the Hornets on that possession, but Hancock later moved 44 yards in just four plays to add on. Singleton carried in from the 13 for his second touchdown of the night. The extra-point try failed, but the Hornets still led 21-8.
Grayson County fumbled the ball away on its next possession, but the defense forced a punt as the fourth quarter began. Singleton, who also does the punting for the Hornets, was tackled for a loss at the Hancock 38 following a bad snap.
With good field position, the Cougars were looking to get back in the game, but on third-and-six, Bullock threw his second interception of the night and this one was returned by Singleton 75 yards for a score to make it 29-9.
The Cougars were unable to move the ball on the ensuing possession and lined up to punt on fourth-and-18 at their own 18-yard line. Woosley, who had punted well all evening, for some reason kept the ball and tried to pick up the first down, but only succeeded in giving the Hornets the ball at the Cougar 19.
Four plays later senior Jacob Smith carried in from a yard out to make it 35-8.
With time winding down, head coach Ed Smart had inserted some of his younger players, including sophomore quarterback Cameron Harris. On a second-and-nine play at the 41, Harris tried to pitch the ball as he was being tackled and the Hornets c0vered a loose ball at the Grayson County 43.
A run moved the ball to the 27, and with just 21 seconds remaining, backup quarterback Spencer Harpenau connected with junior receiver Parker Layne for the final score of the night.
The 0-1 Cougars will be at home again this Friday when they play host to the Shelby County Rockets (0-1). Shelby County reached the semi-final round of the state championship last year before falling to the eventual 5-A champions, South Warren. They steamrolled the Cougars 52-0 last year in Shelbyville.
Reach Don Brown at 259-9622, ext. 2016.