BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
SPORTS EDITOR EMERITUS
KNOXVILLE -- After all the hype, all the anticipation, it all ended for Greeneville the same place as last year.
The defending state champion and unbeaten Fulton High Falcons blitzed Greeneville 40-20 Friday night in the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Class 4A state playoffs here Friday night on a rainy and bleak night.
The highly-anticipated matchup between the two squads ranked No. 1 (Fulton) and No. 2 (Greeneville) all year was put away by the host Falcons as the Greene Devils made every mistake possible during a horrid first quarter that got them off to a bad start.
Greeneville lost three fumbles and had two pass interceptions, an uncharacteristic five turnovers for a team that hadn't make very many of those miscues all season long.
"We gave them the momentum and against a team like that you can't do that," GHS Coach Caine Ballard said. "You hope they'll be the one making turnovers but we were the ones who made the mistakes tonight. They're fast, they're explosive, when they tackle they hammer you and they made plays and we didn't."
Fulton used an aerial assault by quarterback Penny Smith to wideout Xavier Hawkins in the first half to account for three passing touchdowns. With their top rusher Daryl Rollins-Davis sidelined with a foot injury, the Fulton running attack might have looked vulnerable, but they made enough plays to put away GHS and give the Devils their only season loss after 12 victories.
The Devils got all their touchdowns from tailback Quan Wilson. Quarterback Zack Finchum hit 21-of-36 passes for 252 yds., and stat-wise the Devils were right there with the Falcons, finishing with 399 yds. compared to 400 yds. for the host team.
Maybe it was jitters in a game that meant so much, but each team fumbled on its opening kickoff. The difference was that Fulton recovered its fumble after GHS had kicked to start the game, and the Devils lost theirs after Fulton had driven down the field to score when they received new life by falling on their own fumble.
Hawkins nabbed his first one, a 31-yd. beauty on a strike from quarterback Smith, to score on the Falcons' first drive of the game.
After the Greene Devils lost the fumble at their own 34 following the ensuing kickoff, Fulton took quick advantage by driving for a second score, with Smith scrambling from 10 yds. out for the touchdown with 5:48 left in the opening uarter, giving the hosts a 13-0 advantage when the extra point kick was blocked.
"We were just so out of synch in the first half," Ballard said. "We wanted to run the ball more, and we panicked a little bit. We went to the air more than we wanted to. We were effective throwing the ball, we just seemed to be out of synch, and that's what they do to you."
The Devils had yet to touch the ball on offense over halfway through the first quarter, but when they did, they drove 90 yds. iin 12 plays to get on the board and give the huge throng of Greenevillians who made the trip some hope.
Zack Finchum engineered the drive with a mixture of run and pass, with the big play a 39-yd. strike to Quan Harrison. Finchum converted a huge fourth and eight play from the 15 when he nailed Quan Wilson for 14-yds. on a slant route to the 1-yd. line.
Three plays later Wilson scored on a 7-yd. run and Ethan Ellis kicked the PAT to close the gap to 13-7.
GHS forced a punt and got the ball back in good field position near midfield. But they couldn't covert a first down, and Coach Ballard rolled the dice with a fake punt, with Jarrod Adams carrying, that came up a bit short of making the necessary yardage needed for a first down.
Again the Falcons took advantage of the Devils' misfortune. Smith again found Hawkins, this time from 43-yds. out, and he pitched the perfect strike. Fulton chose to go for the 2-point conversion and Smith passed to KJ Roper for the points and a 21-7 advantage.
The Devilsl got a good break a short time later when quarterback Finchum broke into the clear on a 49-yd. run down to the Fulton 13. But three plays later, a handoff to Nic Wright was fumbled and the ball rolled backwards some 15 yds. where the Falcos recovered to stop the drive.
Fulton then threw the dagger. From their own 22, Smith found Hawkins again at about the GHS 40 and connected, with Hawkins doing the rest with his speed. He broke free of defenders and sped to the end zone, with the score giving the Falcons a 28-7 lead, which stood up at intermission.
"No. 7 (Hawkins) can fly like nobody else you'll ever see around here," Ballard said.
The Devils almost gave up another score just before the halftime horn when a Finchum pass was picked off near the Fulton 20 and returned all the way to the GHS 15 before it seemed Lennox Roper ran out of gas.
The Devils didn't let up after halftime, taking the kickoff and marching for a touchdown, driviing 61 yds. in 12 plays but it took over five minutes off the clock. Finchum and Hays Culbreth hooked up on a 29-yd. pass play to convert a third and 17. Wilson scored on a 3-yd. run but the PAT was no good, with the lead cut to 28-13.
After throwing for 242 yds. in the first half, Fulton managed only one first down in the third quarter. But the Devils could not get another score. They tried another fake punt, with punter Culbreth running the ball from his own 38 but fumbled it away.
GHS forced the Falcons to punt three straight times in the third period, but they finally got what looked to be a clinching touchdown when they took over at the GHS 22 following a 6-yd. punt by Culbreth, a ball that he decided to punt after runnning around with it and had it partially blocked.
Fulton got the score on a 22-yd. run by De'Ontay Tate. The PAT failed but the score was 34-13.
An error in the kicking game also cost Fulton, when a snap from center sailed over the head of the punter. He ran it down, picked it up and punted, but it died 16 yds. short of the original line of scrimmage.
GHS went on to score, another 3-yd. run by Wilson. It was set up on a pass from Finchum to Trevor Wright that covered 17 yds.
Fulton scored their final TD with less than two minutes remaining in the game on a 4-yd. scamper by Tate to account for the final 40-20 margin.
Smith hit 9-of-21 passes for 236 yds. and three touchdowns. Tate finished with 133 yds. rushing in 18 carries and two TDs.
Finchum led the Devils in rushing with 86 yds. in 10 attemts while Wilson rushed for 40 yds. on 16 carries. Hays Culbreth and Trevor Wright each caught six passes for 73 and 65 yds. respectively..
"These seniors are special," Ballard said of his Greene Devils. "I mean, it was about as good of leadership from a group of guys as we've ever had. I hope the young guys will learn from them and step in and be able to pick up where they left off."
Fulton will advance to the state semifinals next Friday where they will host cross-town rival Catholic with a berth in Cookeville and the state championship on the line.