BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
SPORTS EDITOR EMERITUS
Just like old western gunfighters who carved notches into their gun after they vanquished an opponent, Greeneville's football team added Elizabethton to their list of teams getting into their way on a march to another state title.
The Cyclones featured one of the state's premier junior tailbacks in Ethan Thomas, and he did not disappoint with 187 yds. rushing on the night, but the Greene Devils had far too many weapons and rolled to a 49-20 victory Friday night before a rain-soaked and chilled crowd at Burley Stadium.
Greeneville, now 12-0, gets a rematch next Friday night at Knoxville against the Fulton Falcons (12-0), the state's top-ranked team. Fulton pulled away in the final six minutes of the game to oust Sullivan South 41-19. The last time Greeneville tasted a loss was in the second round of the playoffs in 2012 in a second round matchup on Fulton's home field.
Coach Caine Ballard praised the play of his offense and defense Friday night, especially the performance by senior Hays Culbreth, who lost his father to a heart attack last weekend.
"Good gosh, what a game he had," Ballard said of Culbreth, who caught four passes for 71 yds. and a touchdown and took off on a fake punt and ran for another score on a 62-yd. sprint, see-sawing his way past defenders who were grasping at air.
Senior quarterback Zack Finchum for the night hit 9-of-16 passes for 128 yds. and two scores and he ran for another touchdown.
"I thought overall we played really well," Ballard said. "The defense was strong early. The offense was good. There was great preparation this week. They (Elizabethton) never really stopped us early. Finchum threw the ball well early in that weather (the first half was played in a steady rain) and our receivers caught the ball and made some plays."
Playing with the mercy rule in effect has been common this year for the Greene Devils, and they upped their lead to the 35 points needed to keep the clock moving in the third quarter. The Cyclones did put a stop to that when they scored to bring it back down under that limit, but the outcome was never really in doubt after the first half.
Elizabethton Coach Shawn Witten said the Devils "just blew us away in that first quarter."
"We had terrible field position early," he said. "Greeneville is so good in the first quarter and they've been good at that all year. They are a complete team. We got some yards for Ethan, but we just didn't do enough to challenge or threaten them."
Greeneville scored on each of its five first half possessions. They got a break when the Cyclones had a bad snap on a punt attempt on the game's opening possession and the punter had to run for his life but didn't make a first down. GHS took over at the Cyclones 35 and scored in five plays.
Quan Wilson scored on a 9-yd. run off the option and kicker Balsa Rogosic knocked through the PAT to put the Devils up 7-0.
Elizabethton's second possession also ended in a mistake when DB Trevor Wright soared high in the air to yank down a pass interception at the GHS 43. The Devils again took advantage, scoring in seven plays with Finchum sneaking across from the 1-yd. line.
Finchum did a lot of work in that drive with runs of 13 and 14 yds., and he hit Culbreth for 15-yds. to the 1-yd. line to set up the score.
"They made a couple of mistakes early and we were able to capitalize," Ballard said. "We executed. Culbreth and Trevor made some game-changing plays and we controlled the line of scrimmage. Quan Wilson had a good game. Desmond (Dabbs) has been sick all week and he was off a step, but our backs executed."
Greeneville drove 69 yds. in nine plays to make it 20-0 with battering ram fullback Nic Wright barging in from 7-yds. out early in the second quarter. The PAT failed this time.
Three runs wouldn't net a first down for the Cylones as Jake Sell aggravated Thomas constantly in the backfield. The Devils took over at their own 47 after a punt and scored in just four plays with again Nic Wright bulling across from 2-yds. out. That drive was sparked by a 37-yd. run by Wilson. GHS went for the 2-point conversion and got it on a run by Wilson to make it 28-0.
The Cyclones finally got some offense going and scored with just 2:11 left in the first half. Thomas peeled off a 50-yd. run to get his team in position. The Devils thought they had him cornered on the sideline but he somehow tight-roped his way past the defenders.
"I think absolutely it was good for us to play against a back like Thomas," Ballard said. "He was a warrior out there, even when they were down by a lot of points. We know what lies ahead for us so to play against somebody that strong was important."
Caleb Jones scored on a 6-yd. run and Logan Birchfield knocked through the PAT to cut the gap to 28-7.
But just when the Cyclones looked like they might recover, the Devils really threw a dagger into them, moving 53-yds. to score with just 23 seconds left in the half. Finchum found Wright twice in the drive, once for 13 and once for 16.
Facing fourth down and nine from the 13, the Devils lined up for what looked to be a field goal attempt. But Finchum, the holder on kicks, jumped up after taking the snap and fired a strike to a wide-open Caleb Ellenbug for the touchdown.
That sent the teams to the locker room with the Devils up 35-7.
Trevor Wright got the second half kickoff and an 85-yd. return for an apparent touchdown was nullified by a personal foul penalty.
But GHS scored anyway, moving 43 yds. in seven plays. The touchdown came on a fourth down and 17 play from the 37. Finchum aired out a pass that Culbreth was able to pull in despite good defensive pressure for the touchdown. That upped the lead to 42-7 and sent the mercy rule into effect for the remainder of the third canto.
Elizabethton stopped that when they scored on a 15-yd. pass from Caleb Bailey to Isaiah Clark early in the final period. The PAT was blocked.
Finchum made his only mistake of the night when Brandon Lynch intercepted a pass shortly after, but the Devils stopped the Cyclones at the GHS 37.
Facing fourth down and 8 from the 3, Culbreth dropped back to punt and the right side of the field opened up and he took off, zig-zagging his way on a touchdown run that moved the lead to 49-13 with 3:06 left.
Elizabethton caught the Devils napping on a halfback pass from Thomas to Clark for 45-yds. to the 1-yd. line and Bailey took it in from there with just 41 seconds left to close the gap to 49-20.
For the game Wilson led the Devils in rushing with 95 yds. in 10 carries, while Finchum had 80 yds. The Devils finished with 393 yds. of offense. The Cyclones got 276 yds., with 198 rushing, 187 of those by Thomas.
Elizabethton 0 7 0 13--20
Greeneville 14 21 7 7--49
GHS -- Quan Wilson, 9-yd. run (Balsa Rogosic kick)
GHS -- Zach Finchum, 1-yd. run (Rogosic kick)
GHS -- Nic Wright, 7-yd. run (kick failed)
GHS -- N.Wright, 3-yd. run (Wilson run)
EHS -- Caleb Jones, 6-yd. run (Logan Birchfield kick)
GHS -- Caleb Ellenburg, 12-yd. pass from Finchum (Rogosic kick)
GHS -- Hays Culbreth, 37-yd. pass from Finchum (Rogosic kick)
EHS -- Isaiah Clark, 15-yd. pass from Bailey (kick failed)
GHS -- Culbreth, 62-yd. run (Rogosic kick)
EHS -- Bailey, 1-yd. run (Birchfield kick)
First Downs 14 21
Passing (Att-Com-Int) 7-3-1 16-9-1
Yds. Passing 78 128
Yds. Rushing 198 265
Total Offense 276 393
Fumbles Lost 0 0
Penalties 5-45 3-25
Punt Avg. 3-42.3 1-24.0
Rushing: EHS--Ethan Thomas 32-187. GHS -- Zack Finchum 12-80, Quan Wilson 10-95, Nic Wright 3-23.
Passing: EHS--Caleb Bailey 6-2-23-1-1; Ethan Thomas 1-1-45-0-0. GHS--Zack Finchum 16-9-128-2-1.
Receiving: EHS--Isaiah Clark 2-60. GHS--Hays Culbreth 4-71, Trevor Wright 2-28.