BY O.J. EARLY
Committing four turnovers will kill just about any team's chance of winning.
Consider that the opposing team turned two of those turnovers into touchdowns, and that's pretty much the story of Friday night's game on the Range.
The West Greene Buffaloes (1-4, 0-2) absorbed a tough 21-6 loss to the visiting Cumberland Gap Panthers (4-1, 0-2), despite what Buff head coach Joe Case said was a solid performance by his young troops.
"We're young and we're learning," said an upbeat Case after the game. "You look at stats, it's like we just wore them out. Turnovers killed us."
One area that West Greene showed success in was the passing game, an offensive weapon that the Buffs have not traditionally relied on.
Junior quarterback Austin Greenlee completed 9 of 12 passes for 196 yards, the most yards by any West Greene quarterback in several seasons. West Greene just couldn't capitalize.
The Cumberland Gap Panthers, behind the hard running of senior Wesley Nance, moved the ball with precision down the field and scored the game's first points with a four-yard touchdown pass from Blake Franklin to Johnathan Estes. The PAT made the score 7-0 with 9:23 to go in the opening quarter.
On their first possession, West Greene was forced to punt the ball away after just three plays, as the Buff running backs couldn't seem to gain traction. But the West Greene defense stood tall, forcing the Panthers to a quick three-and-out.
The Buffs opened their second offensive possession with three straight runs by sophomore Johnathan Padgett, and two runs by junior Nathan Morgan. But the big play of the drive was a 56 yard pass completion from Greenlee to senior Cameron Key, who was brought down just two yards shy of the endzone.
West Greene scored one play later off a plunge by fullback Bayless Kinser. The PAT failed, allowing the Panthers to stay in front 7-6 with 5:56 to go in the first quarter.
The Buffs and Panthers would go on to trade possessions for most of the first half. The Buffs gained some momentum near the close of the first quarter behind runs by Padgett and Morgan, but gave the ball away on a fumble at the start of the second period.
West Greene, after forcing the Panthers to a fast three-and-out, found themselves with first and ten on their own 16 yard line with 10:51 to play in the opening half. The Buffs put together perhaps their best drive of the night, highlighted by two big catches from senior Caleb Julian, pushing the ball to the Panther 2 yard line. After West Greene couldn't punch it in, Case whistled for a timeout with a fourth and goal situation and 3.2 seconds to go. The coach elected not go for a field goal, and West Greene's Padgett was stuffed in the backfield, sending the Panthers into the locker room clinging to a 7-6 lead.
"I thought about kicking it," Case said after the game. "I had enough faith in our guys that we could run it. We checked it to the other side and the fullback didn't get the check."
West Greene opened the third quarter without much offensive success, and turned the ball over on downs with 8:32 left in the third stanza.
Cumberland Gap scored nine plays later when Franklin took a one-yard quarterback sneak into the endzone. The score was 13-6 after the PAT failed with 4:24 left in the third quarter.
But West Greene wasn't finished fighting. The Buffs responded with a nine play drive, including a big 17 yard catch by Julian. But the Buffs again found themselves going for it on 4th and 7, and a scrambling Greenlee stumbled two yards short of converting.
Nance took the first offensive play and galloped 21 yards, gashing the Buff defense. West Greene, however, forced the Panthers to punt after senior Jaylynn Kesterson sacked Franklin for a five yard loss.
Disaster hit the Buffs again, when what appeared to be an option turned into a fumble with the Panthers recovering. Franklin was in the endzone again four plays later and Cumberland Gap was up 21-6 with 7:06 to play in the fourth quarter after a successful two-point conversion.
West Greene found a response, driving the ball down the field on the shoulders of a 23 yard pass from Greenlee to senior Chase Lawson. A solid run by Morgan appeared to be good for a touchdown, but the officials ruled that he fumbled the ball before getting into the endzone, and West Greene turned the ball over again, allowing the Panthers to play keep away for the remainder of the game.
The Buffs begin their quest for a second straight County Championship next week when they travel to the Tundra for a battle with North Greene.