Polk defense never rested, nor did coaching staff in preparing for Owen
Polk County defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Jamie Thompson wore the look Friday night of a man satisfied with a job well done.
Or perhaps that of a man ready for a nap.
Polk County’s coaching staff put in long hours in the two weeks leading up to Friday’s 41-24 win at No. 10 Owen, a victory that secured at least a share of the Western Highlands Conference title. The Wolverines, who are already assured of being the conference’s top seed for the playoffs, can win the title outright this week against Hendersonville.
The result of those hours, though, was an unqualified success, as the Wolverine defense forced two turnovers, scored a touchdown, turned three Owen trips into the red zone into just three points and held Warhorse standout running back Jager Gardner to a season-low 147 yards.
All of which gave Thompson reason to have that look of satisfaction.
“Two weeks ago, we started working on things,” Thompson said. “The Sunday before last, we worked and worked. I think we were there from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. But when we were done, we had a plan together for the kids.”
Stopping Gardner, obviously, was a key part of that plan. The junior came in with more than 2,000 yards on the season, averaging 11 yards per carry. And Gardner had a big first quarter Friday, breaking a 44-yard jaunt on Owen’s first drive and a 17-yard gain late in the first period while gaining almost 100 yards by quarter’s end.
But after that, Gardner wasn’t a huge factor as the Wolverines swarmed to the ball every time he touched it. Unofficially, Gardner had 13 carries for 50 yards in the final three periods.
“Everybody was talking about him, saying he was averaging around 300 yards per game,” said Polk junior Jordan Smith, who recovered a Gardner fumble in the first quarter. “We practiced all week saying one guy can’t beat us. We had to be ready for what else they had offensively, too.”
Polk County certainly came prepared for Owen’s passing game, as the Warhorses completed just 2-of-8 attempts for 10 yards. It was against the pass that Smith also produced one of the game’s key plays, picking off an Owen attempt and returning it 26 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth period.
That score gave Polk County a 34-16 lead and effectively ended Owen’s comeback hopes.
“Jordan Smith made an awesome play,” Thompson said. “He recognized the play. We had a feeling they might try that off the bootleg, so he read it and hid underneath, then picked it off.”
Smith’s fumble recovery in the first quarter ended an Owen drive inside the 20. He also made a key play on Owen’s initial red zone trip, the first drive of the game, tackling Zee Johnston at the 5 on third-and-three from the Polk 4. The Warhorses decided to try a field goal at that point, which sailed wide right.
“They take the ball and go right down the field, and then miss the field goal,” said Polk head coach Bruce Ollis. “We gave it back to them (on an interception two plays later), but that was a huge stop there.”
Leading 14-7 late in the second quarter, Polk also stopped another Owen touchdown threat. The Warhorses utilized a fake punt just past midfield to sustain a drive that reached the Wolverine 11. There, Austin Bennett was stopped for no gain on first down, Gardner picked up five yards on second down and Polk perfectly defended a play-action pass on third down, forcing Owen to settle for a field goal that made the score 14-10 with 45 seconds left in the half.
That would be as close as Owen would get. Polk would score on its first drive of the second half for a 21-10 lead. Owen would respond, taking advantage of a short field following a failed onside kick attempt to score on a short Gardner run. But the Warhorses failed to convert their 2-point attempt, another stop that Ollis pointed to as key, and the Wolverines would score the next 20 points.
Owen led last year’s meeting 21-14 at the half, but the Wolverines roared back for a 28-21 win by limiting the Warhorses to just 25 second-half yards. Owen managed more than that in this year’s final half, but without a doubt the Polk defense had the upper hand.
“I think a lot of it is just game speed,” Thompson said of the second-half success. “The kids get more used to things as the game goes along. Football is a momentum game, especially when you have a lot of the same guys playing offense, then playing defense like we do. The defense feeds off what the offense is doing.”
Polk County will look to keep that momentum going against Hendersonville in the regular season finale.
“We’re ecstatic about the win, but we’re not celebrating yet,” Ollis said. “We want to be the outright conference champions, and that takes another win next week. This is our fifth conference title since 2006, but we’ve never gone undefeated in the conference. We’re one win away from doing that.”
Photo: Jane Ollis
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