With less than a minute left Friday in Cherokee Bluff’s game against Johnson, chants of “I believe that we will win” erupted from the Bears student section. For the first time in program history, they were right.
Cherokee Bluff burst out of the gate full of energy, got out to a four-score lead in the first quarter and managed to finish off a 37-7 victory against Johnson.
“We’ve always kind of, from Day 1, implemented a brick by brick philosophy,” Bears coach Tommy Jones said after the game. “Tonight, obviously, was a big brick.”
Cherokee Bluff running back Jaquan Smith ran for 128 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 12 carries, and quarterback Mason Thomas completed 6 of 7 pass attempts for 157 yards and a pair of scores to power the Bears offense.
Defensively, they were even better, holding Johnson to 120 total yards and no points in the first half to take a commanding 34-0 halftime lead.
The remainder of the game was all but a formality from there, as Cherokee Bluff kept up the pressure, picking up three second-half sacks — one coming on a third down and another on a fourth down — and cruised to the dominant victory.
“Our guys come to work every day,” Jones said. “They haven’t been able to taste any fruit for their labor until tonight. I love our kids. It’s not easy to lose 12 straight. ... But they just kept coming to work every day. They executed well tonight. It was a good night for the Bears. We’ll leave it at that.”
It only took three plays for Cherokee Bluff to set the tone of the game.
On the first two Bears snaps, running back Harrison Carter bruised his way to 13 hard earned yards to pick up a first down. Then, Smith grabbed his first carry of the game, got to the edge with a burst of speed and sprinted down the sideline for a 44-yard gain.
Four plays later, Smith took a pitch to the right into the corner of the end zone for the Bears first score.
“Any time you play a ball control football team, scoring early helps,” Jones said of the play. “It was good for our confidence as well.”
But Smith wasn’t done yet.
Just five plays into Cherokee Bluff’s second drive, he took a carry to the left and found himself in space after breaking through the line. Smith brought the ball all the way into the end zone from 46 yards out to put his team on top 14-0 before Johnson had any time to respond.
“I just wanted to give my team a boost of confidence,” Smith said. “And also take some confidence away from them.”
The Cherokee Bluff defense made the Knights pay for just about every mistake they made Friday night.
The Bears forced three fumbles on the game — one leading to a 45-yard touchdown return by Tino Mukono — and also grabbed an interception to dominate the turnover battle 4-0.
The Bears confused Johnson quarterback Jack Luttrell throughout the first half, and did the same to Luttrell’s replacement Justin Long in the second, never allowing the Johnson offense to get into any sort of rhythm.
“I don’t know if it’s a secret or not, but I’ve always heard when you play hard, good things happen and the ball bounces your way,” Jones said. “That’s what happened tonight.”
The Bears entered their halftime locker room in a position they’d never experienced before — holding onto a huge lead.
Though the game seemed all but over, Smith said Jones put an emphasis on not letting up in the second half.
“Coach said it over and over again in the locker room at halftime,” Smith said. “The game’s not over yet. You’ve got to keep playing hard.”
Cherokee Bluff did exactly that.
After giving up a score early in the third quarter, the Bears defense clamped down, making sure the early second half mistake didn’t snowball into a worse situation. They forced two straight punts, then forced a fumble to put to rest any chance of a Johnson comeback.