MT. JULIET -- Mt. Juliet (5-3) had its four-game winning streak end as the Golden Bears fell to East Tennessee power Oak Ridge (5-3) 41-34 in an exciting Friday night at Elzie Patton Stadium.
The Golden Bears have been faced with an unusual amount of adversity this season. Last week's adversity came in the form of losing starting quarterback Brice Messenger (who had started all seven games this season) to a "disciplinary issue." He was dismissed from the team last Monday, leaving coach Trey Perry, offensive coordinator Zach White and their offensive staff less than four days to have a new signal caller ready.
Left in the wings were sophomore Stephen Swoner (starter) and freshman Griffin Thorneberry (backup). They both saw considerable game action against the Wildcats on Friday night. Perry said that was by design and that each guy has different strengths and the staff decided to implement a few packages for each young QB.
"Could not be prouder of those two young men to compete like that they did, especially against a well-coached team like them." Perry said. "Both guys would grade an A as far as effort goes." Star receiver Malik Bowen also played a couple of series at quarterback.
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He was also very impressed with the way his staff and the players handled the adversity they faced. Perry led the line of players on their walk through the stands and when they ran onto the field Friday night. Perry stated he had not done this before, but that we wanted to show the fans the team was united.
Special teams and defensive plays were a huge factor in the game. Both teams blocked a kick -- Oak Ridge blocked a long field-goal attempt and the Mt. Juliet blocked a punt. Also, both teams returned an interception for a touchdown in the game.
The first pick-six came on the first play of the game as Jamari Sowell intercepted a pass to the slot receiver and returned it 21 yards to give the Golden Bears a 7-0 lead. The place was rocking, and Oak Ridge was stunned.
After forcing a Wildcats punt, Swoner led Mt. Juliet on a seven-play, 73-yard touchdown drive giving the Bears a two-touchdown lead with under five minutes to play in the first quarter. He hit on each of his first three passes. Running back Conlin Baggott finished the drive with a 46-yard TD run. Baggott led the Golden Bears in rushing with 16 carries totaling 138 yards on the ground.
Bowen caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Swoner midway through the second quarter, finishing with four catches for 40 yards in the game. Swoner completed 8 of 12 passes for 71 yards. Thorneberry completed 1 of 3 passes and ran the ball 11 times for 87 yards. With less than a minute remaining in the first half, he scored an 8-yard touchdown on a designed QB run after he had a long run of 33 yards on the previous play. At the half it was tied at 27.
Mt. Juliet tied the game late in the third quarter at 34-34 on a 10-yard run from Devin Palmer. That would be the Bears final score. Bowen set up Palmer's touchdown with a 30-yard interception return to midfield as Oak Ridge was driving. The starting position was also aided with an additional 15 yards added on for a late-hit penalty against Oak Ridge.
Mt. Juliet had another chance to take the lead late after Manny Marshall recovered a blocked punt early in the fourth quarter. On that same drive, Tyler Johnson lined up for a 45-yard field goal attempt to give the Bears a lead, but Oak Ridge blocked the kick attempt that started the drive for the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Kendall Jackson scored from 7 yards out midway through the fourth quarter for the Wildcats' final touchdown, finishing the night with 13 carries for 54 yards and two touchdowns. Tyrell Romano, the lead back, had 17 carries for 102 yards.
The Golden Bears still are undefeated in Region 4-6-A play and will host their final home game of the regular season on Friday against Station Camp. A win all but locks up a postseason home game for the Bears.
"Next week we are playing to get another home game. We like playing here," Perry said. "When we put together a complete 48 minutes in all three phases, we will be tough to beat in the playoffs."