Bobbled punt safely back in hand, Gage McSwain looked up and saw room to run. Lots of room to run.
So, thus, he did.
“I was pretty nervous when I dropped it and picked it up, but I saw a gap and thought, it’s now or never,” the Polk County junior said. “So I went.”
McSwain went all the way to the end zone, his 46-yard return early in the third quarter helping Polk County pull away Friday night to hand Cherokee a 43-6 defeat in the season opener for both teams at G.M. Tennant Stadium.
In the first meeting between the two schools since 2008, Polk County paired its usual reliance on the running game (344 yards on 40 carries and just two passing attempts) with an outstanding evening on special teams.
In addition to McSwain’s punt return, the Wolverines twice converted short Cherokee kicks into touchdowns and also routinely pinned the Braves deep in their territory on kickoffs, that poor field position making it difficult for Cherokee to generate much offense. The Braves unofficially had just 47 yards rushing and 123 total yards.
Polk kicker Matias Akers also hit all five of his point-after attempts.
“We put some emphasis on special teams in practice, and it’s really gratifying to see that effort pay off,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “We ran the ball awfully well. We probably had eight guys touch the ball and they all got positive yardage.”
Leading that group was McSwain, who added a 37-yard touchdown jaunt in the fourth quarter and finished as the team’s leading rusher with 81 yards on four carries in his Polk County debut. He also had a touchdown negated by a penalty early in the game.
“It was exhilirating, to be honest,” McSwain said. “It was thrilling for me to be out there and see such teamwork. When this team works together, we score. I love this team and I love this program.”
Polk took the game’s opening kickoff and ground out a 13-play, 68-yard drive that lasted almost eight minutes. Sophomore quarterback Bryce Jergenson capped that drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge, then added the 2-point conversion to give Polk an 8-0 lead.
The teams swapped turnovers early in the second period, with Cherokee getting the better of the trade after recovering a fumble at the Polk 12. The Braves weren’t able to move forward in three plays, but senior quarterback Bobby Crowe scrambled around right end on fourth down and powered into the end zone, cutting the Polk lead to 8-6 with 6:09 left in the second half.
The first ensuing kickoff attempt fell out of bounds. Polk asked for a re-kick, and Cherokee tried to do so as an onsides attempt, only to see that also sail off the field. Polk opted to take possession at the Braves 31, and covered that distance in two plays, with Lukas Tipton bursting up the middle for a 12-yard run to make it 15-6 after an Akers extra point.
Polk added one more score before the half, that on Jordan Bishop’s 18-yard run set up by a 3-yard Cherokee punt, then scored on McSwain’s punt return the first time it touched the ball in the third period. With Crowe sidelined by an injury late in the third quarter, Cherokee continued to struggle to generate consistent offense, and the Wolverines took advantage, adding two more touchdowns in the final period on a Jergenson 10-yard run and McSwain’s long score.
Polk also had two second-half fumbles inside the Cherokee 20.
“We’ve got to clean up the fumbles,” Ollis said. “We’ll do ball control and protection next week.
“We got some home runs tonight out of the slot position (with McSwain and Bishop). We really made an effort to get the ball to Jordan on the edge. We’ve told him to be a one-cut runner, so that was really nice to see.”
Bishop finished with 72 yards on six carries and Tipton had 62 yards on 11 carries for Polk. Crowe finished 6-of-15 for 72 yards to lead Cherokee’s offense.
Polk County travels to North Gaston next week while Cherokee visits Choctaw Central in the Battle of the Nations in Philadelphia, Miss.