SWANNANOA – Jordan Smith has so often been in the right place at the right time this season for Polk County.
Being in the wrong place at the right time Friday night helped ensure a Western Highlands Conference championship.
Smith scored three touchdowns, including one off a key 26-yard interception return, as the Wolverines clinched at least a share of the Western Highlands title, defeating 10th-ranked Owen 41-24 at Warhorse Stadium.
And so a team that began its season 0-3, a team some picked to finish in the middle of the conference pack this season, instead will return home next Friday to face Hendersonville with a seven-game winning streak and a chance to both claim sole possession of the conference crown as well as finish with its first undefeated Western Highlands Conference record.
A stellar performance Friday night from all sides gave them that opportunity.
“What an incredible team effort,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “Special teams, defense, offense. We played well tonight in a lot of different phases of the game.
“Two months ago, this team was 0-3, and they kept fighting. This team never gave up on the coaches or each other.”
By game’s end, it was tough to take a step on Owen’s artificial surface and not encounter a Wolverine who made a key contribution to the win. Among them:
– Matt Darden, who immediately matched Owen’s first touchdown late in the first quarter with a 93-yard kickoff return for a score. Ollis: “I told Matt Darden after practice Wednesday, ‘I had a dream that you are going to run a kickoff back for a touchdown.’ I couldn’t make that up. That gave us a big spark.”
– Jamal Tanner, who started at tailback for the first time this season and rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown, that a 1-yard scamper around left end that gave Polk a 14-7 lead with 5:36 left in the second quarter. Ollis: “We made the decision two weeks ago to move Jamal Tanner to tailback full-time. That was another wrinkle that they hadn’t seen.”
– Reece Schlabach, who overcame an early intercepton to run Polk County’s option attack to near-perfection. Schlabach ran for 106 yards and a touchdown, that a picture-perfect 5-yard naked bootleg late in the third period in which he looked to pass, faked a throw that completely fooled an Owen defender, then outraced another defender to the pylon for the score. Schlabach converted three third downs with his legs, plus a third and a fourth down with his arm. Ollis: “Reece threw that pick, and I didn’t say anything to him. I wanted to. . . but it was just one that got away from him. But he settled down and played about flawlessly. We ran option football all night about as well as we have all season.”
– The entire Polk County defense. Facing the top rusher in the area in Owen’s Jager Gardner, the Wolverines held Gardner to a season-low 142 yards on 21 carries, with 92 of those coming in the first quarter. More importantly, they turned three Owen trips inside the 20-yard line in the first half into just three Owen points. Two of those drives were inside the 10. Ollis: “We played team defense, swarming to the football. We probably didn’t have a lot of guys with double-digit tackles. But we had a lot of game tackles.”
– And Smith, who rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns and recovered a Gardner fumble that stopped one of those deep drives. And, of course, had the play that finally broke Owen’s back.
Trailing 28-16 early in the fourth period, Owen (8-2, 5-1) stopped Polk on a fourth-and-three at the 25. With 10:29 left in the game, the Warhorses had time to put themselves back in position to win plus the momentum from the fourth-down stop. But Smith quickly took that away, picking off a Sam Drummond pass at the 26 and racing down the Owen sideline into the end zone. With 10:19 left, the score put Polk County up 34-16 and visibly deflated the Warhorses. Owen went three-and-out on its next possession, and Polk then drove 40 yards in 11 plays for its final score, a 4-yard Smith run with 2:51 remaining for a 41-16 bulge.
“I had the wrong coverage,” Smith said of the interception. “I was supposed to be following the fullback out in the flat. But I saw the guy there and no one really on him, so I moved over there.”
The Warhorses opened the game with the ball and immediately drove downfield, a Gardner 44-yard run giving Owen a first down at the 11. The Warhorses had a third-and-3 at the Polk 4, but Smith brought down Zee Johnston for a 1-yard loss on that play, and Owen attempted to try a 22-yard field goal, which sailed wide right.
The teams then traded turnovers on back-to-back plays before Polk mounted a lengthy drive that ended in another miscue, a fumble that gave Owen the ball at the Warhorse 21. Owen covered those 79 yards in eight plays, capped by Austin Bennett’s six-yard run with 1:03 left in the quarter for a 7-0 lead.
Seconds later, the game was tied. Darden fielded the kickoff at the 7 and headed up the middle of the field. As he hit a huge hole near the 30 he seemed to shift into another gear – “that’s the Western Highlands Conference champion in the 100 sprint,” Ollis said – cut back to his right and sailed to the end zone. With 48 seconds left in the first period, the score was knotted at 7-7.
Owen went three-and-out on its next drive, and Polk took over at the 30. There, the Wolverines fashioned a 10-play, 70-yard scoring march. Tanner had a 14-yard run, Schlabach a 19-yard keeper and, more importantly, a three-yard run on third-and-1 at the 5. One play later, Tanner then capped the drive with his score.
The Warhorses responded with their own long drive, an 11-play effort kept alive by a fake punt on fourth-and-1 at the Polk 44. Facing third-and-5 at the 6, Owen attempted a play-action pass that Polk defended perfectly, forcing Owen to settle for a 22-yard Aaron Steinel field goal, keeping Polk ahead 14-10 with 4:51 left in the half.
A long Smith kickoff return, plus an Owen personal foul, gave the Wolverines the ball at the 23 to open the third quarter. Schlabach converted a third-and-2 at the 15, setting the stage for a Smith 5-yard touchdown run. Anthony Marino added one of his five extra points on the night for a 21-10 lead.
The Wolverines then attempted an onside kick, but Owen recovered, the short field leading to Gardner’s 1-yard touchdown run with 6:46 left. The Warhorses then seemed to convert their 2-point attempt, but a penalty negated the score, and Polk County stopped Johnston on the next try to keep a 21-16 lead.
Back came the Wolverine offense. Facing third-and-2 at midfield, Schlabach kept on an option right, cutting back across the field and dashing 39 yards to the 11. Two plays later, he executed his fake-and-run for a score, and the Wolverines were up 28-16 with 3:24 left in the third period.
Soon would come Smith’s heroics and a muted post-game celebration for a team that still has one more regular-season goal in mind.
“This is our fifth conference title since 2006, but we’ve never gone undefeated in the conference,” Ollis said. “Now we’re one win away from that.
“We’re going to relish this right now, then start getting ready for those Bearcats.”