DANDRIDGE — Tanner Atkins and his Jefferson County teammates were tired of close losses after last season. So far, that’s become a thing of the past — just like the Patriots’ losing streak to Morristown West.
For the first time since Atkins and his fellow seniors were in kindergarten, JCHS left the field victorious against the Trojans.
With Atkins leading the way in both rushing and passing, Jefferson County won its conference opener for the first time since 2010 by taking down the Trojans 28-20 at Leroy Shannon Field.
“Whenever you’re 1-0 (in the conference), it’s great. You’ve got a chance to do something, not fighting an uphill battle,” JCHS coach Spencer Riley said.
The victory ended multiple droughts as Jefferson County (3-0, 1-0 Big East) has won its first three games for the first time since 2003. It also marked the Patriots’ first win over Morristown West (1-2, 0-1) since 2007 and the first time the Trojans have lost at Dandridge since 2004.
But it wasn’t easy.
Despite holding a 433-140 advantage in total offense, the Patriots found themselves in a 20-20 tie early in the fourth quarter.
No worries, Atkins and the Patriots were ready to finish the job.
In 11 plays, Jefferson County drove 80 yards with sophomore Ayden Houston carrying the ball on eight of those plays and gaining 34 yards while Atkins kept the ball twice for a pair of 15-yard gains after his 16-yard completion to Austin Lietch.
On first-and-goal at the 8, Atkins handed off to Houston who cut outside to his left and sprinted into the end zone with 4:02 on the clock. Houston then powered his way over the goal line for the 2-point conversion and an eight-point Jefferson County lead.
“Honestly, we really kept our composure. We knew we had more than enough talent, and we kind of controlled the game so we knew we were capable of marching it down the field,” Atkins said. “This is the first week we’ve put (Houston) in at running back. He really stepped up huge for us. He’s a good athlete.”
Expect more carries from Houston in the future after his 13-carry, 78-yard rushing performance on Thursday night.
Atkins finished 9-of-13 passing for 168 yards, but both of his touchdowns came on the ground as he kept the ball 12 times for a team-high 84 yards.
And the signal caller’s dual-threat ability came in handy on a third-and-12 situation early in the third quarter as he kept the ball for an 18-yard gain before facing fourth-and-8 at the West 20.
Looking to throw at first, Atkins found a hole and took off running to the right where he cut outside to elude a tackle and outran the defense into the end zone for Jefferson County’s second touchdown, and he connected with a wide-open Lietch for the ensuing 2-point conversion and a 14-3 lead.
“(West) didn’t play bad coverage wise. I was just trying to keep the play alive and not take a sack, so a lot of times I was just trying to make something work with my feet,” Atkins said. “(Our offensive line) has put in the work and it’s showing out on the field. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
It didn’t take long for Atkins and the Patriots to answer a field goal by West, as he found Seth Parrott on the next offensive snap for 48 yards and again for 15 more. Two plays after Gage Bolin ripped a 12-yard run, Atkins kept on the option and scored again from a yard out as JCHS took a 20-6 lead with 1:25 in the third.
It didn’t hurt that the JCHS defense limited the Trojans to 76 yards rushing while adding 4 sacks to its season total, which now sits at 19 through three games.
Senior linebacker Andrew Manning was responsible for one of those sacks and recorded a team-best 3 tackles for a loss. Alex Mojica finished with 2 sacks and Reed Manley added 1 with Garrett Winn, Seandavid Workman, Bradee McCoy, Zach Allison and Logan Brewer all adding 1 TFL.
And the Patriots recovered two West fumbles, the first of which ended a drive after West had penetrated the red zone and the second coming on a botched snap with 2:12 on the fourth-quarter clock.
“Everybody’s just getting after it, everybody’s flying to the ball, we’re sending pressure right now and it’s working,” Manning said of the JCHS defense. “It’s just a good win. We didn’t play like we wanted do, but we’ve been getting tough wins here lately. We just have to keep that up.”
Atkins’ 27-yard completion to Kade Parker helped JCHS strike quickly on its first drive as Josh Miller scored from the 4 for a 6-0 lead after West blocked the PAT. Miller finished with 65 yards on 13 carries with Bolin gaining 38 on 5 totes.
Juan Villasenor, who drilled a 50-yard punt in the first quarter, pulled West within 6-3 after the Trojans recovered a Jefferson County fumble.
Zach Christensen’s 27-yard kickoff return and an ensuing horse collar tackle penalty gave West a short field in JCHS territory, and Villasenor connected again from 30 yards as West pulled within 14-6.
Dominick Hazeltine, West’s leading rusher with a hard-earned 73 yards on 17 carries, capitalized on a 42-yard kickoff return by Christensen five plays later when he bulled his way in from 5 yards.
Junior Diakelmad and Corson Olodey both sacked Atkins on the following drive and forced the Patriots to punt from their own end zone, where the punter mishandled the snap and Justin Dilbeck alertly recovered in the end zone for the game-tying touchdown with 8:37 left.
Christensen also intercepted a deep pass by Atkins in the second quarter, the Trojans’ first pick of the year.
“On defense, we played a lot better but we’ve still got a ways to go. We’re going to get back to work and learn how to play the other team instead of playing ourselves,” West coach Dr. Alvin Sanders said. “Offensively, we have to play well to get our defense off the field. It’s those little things we have to drive home.”
Konner Shelton, Jovanny Gonzalez and Dilbeck were all involved in 1 TFL.
Junior quarterback Dylan Cribley completed 6-of-12 passes for 54 yards, and sophomore Noah Tripucka hit 2-of-3 for 10 while running the ball twice for 18 yards.
Terrell Lovell caught 3 passes for 28 yards with Nick Hildebrand and Elijah Richardson combining for 2 receptions for 27 yards.
Lietch gained 56 yards on 4 receptions for JCHS, which converted 6-of-11 third downs and both of its fourth down attempts.
The Trojans travel to former conference rival Cherokee next Friday, while Jefferson County visits Knox West for its first road game of 2019. Both games are set for 7:30 p.m. kickoffs.
Patriots 28, Trojans 20
Morristown West 3 0 3 14— 20
Jefferson County 6 0 14 8— 28
JC - Josh Miller 4-run (kick blocked)
MW - Juan Villasenor 28-FG
JC - Tanner Atkins 20-run (Austin Lietch pass from Atkins)
MW - Villasenor 30-FG
JC - Atkins 1-run (pass failed)
MW - Dominick Hazeltine 5-run (Villasenor kick)
MW - Justin Dilbeck fumble recovery in end zone (Villasenor kick)
JC - Ayden Houston 8-run (Houston run)
First Down 14 24
Rushes-yards 33-76 44-265
Passing 64 168
Att-Comp-Int 15-8-0 13-9-1
Total Offense 140 433
Punts 4-31 2-18.5
Fumbles-Lost 2-2 3-2
Penalties-Yards 3-35 14-159