Difference makers: Xavier Harper had 148 total yards and two touchdowns for Jackson County. Johnson's Cedric Harris had 142 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries before leaving in the third quarter with an injury.
Stats that matter: The Knights gained 333 yards but also lost two turnovers.
Turning point: Jackson County's Trey Pettyjohn recovered a fumble at the Panthers' 31 yard-line to stop a potential game-tying drive by Johnson in the fourth quarter.
Up next: Johnson plays host to East Hall, 7:30 p.m. Friday. Jackson County at Walnut Grove, 7:30 p.m. Friday.
OAKWOOD — Big plays beat big yardage Friday night in Oakwood. Jackson County High's football team used the former for a season-opening 20-12 victory over Johnson at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
Xavier Harper had 148 all-purpose yards and scored twice in the first half for the Panthers (1-0), which held on despite watching Johnson gain 131 more yards. The sophomore followed Johnson's first score with an electrifying 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He also caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Daniel midway through the second quarter.
Daniel also hit Jalen Banks for a 12-yard score in the third quarter, and the Panthers stiffened on defense late when it mattered. Trey Pettyjohn ended Johnson's best hope late with a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.
"All of those plays came from good blocks by my teammates," Harper said. "We've been preaching all summer about starting a new era in Jackson County football. There is something really special about starting out with a win. It definitely does everything to build our confidence."
Cedric Harris set the tone early for Johnson with 84 yards and a touchdown on nine first-quarter carries. The star junior had to leave with four minutes left in the third quarter after losing his helmet on a run up the middle.
Johnson coach Paul Friel said Harris needed stitches to close a cut on his head and might have suffered a mild concussion. Friel said Harris' status for the Knights' game against East Hall next week is up in the air.
"I felt like we definitely had a really good chance," Friel said. "But we couldn't convert, we had some penalties and made some foolish mistakes. We obviously have to fix those."
One thing Johnson doesn't need to fix is the running game. A.J. Millwood ran for 134 yards on 19 carries with 116 yards coming in the second half. The Knights dominated the line of scrimmage on offense with a mix of runs up the middle with Harris and counter plays by Millwood set up by pulling linemen Kyle Stacey and Mason Borders.
All but 17 of the Knights' 333 yards came on the ground.
"Their kids play so physical," Jackson County coach Billy Kirk said. "The kept hitting us in the mouth. If we didn't get that return (by Harper), who knows what would have happened. That was such a huge play early on that we needed."
This marks the fourth year in a row that the Panthers opened the season with a victory, two of them on the road. That's hard to put a value on, Kirk said.
"This is just monstrous," he added. "This gives us plenty to build on for the rest of the year. We're not just building for the season but we're continuing to build this program."