BY O.J. EARLY
CUMBERLAND GAP -- When the West Greene Buffaloes loaded the bus for the long trip to Cumberland Gap, head coach Joe Case had a good feeling.
The Buffs, who lost to the Panthers 21-6 earlier in the year, had a chance to not only avenge their regular season loss but do something that no other West Greene football team had done: win a playoff game.
By night's end, Case's initial thoughts proved more than a hunch, as West Greene knocked off the homestanding Cumberland Gap Panthers 17-12 to advance to the second round of the TSSAA playoffs.
"It is unbelievable for West Greene," said an elated Case, pointing to his group of seniors who will leave West Greene with more football wins over the last four years than any graduating class before them.
Case's Buffs, who won four of their final five games, amassed 372 total yards in the contest, thanks largely in part to a big night from sophomore Johnathan Padgett, who finished the game with 263 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown.
The Buff defense picked off Cumberland Gap's Blake Franklin four times, and held the Panthers to their third lowest scoring performance of the 2012 campaign.
West Greene's defense held the Panthers to 248 yards in the game, 80 of those coming on one pass play.
"We played lights out defensively and played well enough offensively to get the job done," Case said, whose Buffs will travel to Sullivan North next Friday to face the Raiders. "We made plays."
The Panthers struck first, scoring on their fourth play from scrimmage on an 80-yd. touchdown strike. The PAT was missed, and Cumberland Gap was up 6-0 with 10:27 to play in the opening quarter. It was the only time, however, the Panthers would lead the game.
West Greene's first offensive possession was a good indicator of how they planned to execute the game: pound the football and drain the clock.
The Buffs took over on their own 35, and scored 11 plays later when sophomore quarterback Austin Greenlee found senior Cameron Key for a 12-yard touchdown pass. Brock Shelton's PAT gave the Buffs a 7-6 lead with 5:05 to play in the first quarter.
The Panthers came out clicking on their second possession, moving the ball 68 yards in five plays behind the hard running of Wesley Nance. But the Buff defense came up big, and freshman Dylan Kirk, getting his first ever start on defense, grabbed his first of two interceptions, picking Franklin off at the Panther five-yard line.
West Greene couldn't notch a score on the ensuing drive, but managed to chew a sizeable amount of the clock and stick to the original game plan: keep the ball away from Cumberland Gap.
After stopping the Panthers on a huge fourth down play, West Greene took over on their own 31 yard line with 4:37 left to play in the opening half. Three straight runs from senior fullback Josh Thacker gave West Greene a first and ten, setting Padgett for a monster 43 yard run, his longest of the night. Padgett scored four plays after his big run, and Shelton's PAT put West Greene up 14-6 just before halftime.
West Greene received the football to open the second half, and continued to run right at the Panther defense. The drive, highlighted by a 28-yard gallop by Padgett, stalled and the Buffs were presented with a fourth-and-goal from the Panther 10 yard line. Case called on Shelton for the field goal, and the freshman booted no doubt the biggest kick of his young career, and West Greene was up 17-6 with 8:13 to play in the third quarter.
Cumberland Gap's next two drives ended in disappointment for the home crowd, with West Greene's Tyler Laws and James Marshall pulling in two interceptions within a three minute span to close the third quarter.
The fourth quarter provided some edge-of-your seat entertainment, as the Panthers pulled within five points of the Buffs, recovering a West Greene fumble in the endzone. The two-point conversion failed, and West Greene was clinging to a 17-12 lead with 8:52 to play in the final quarter.
It appeared the Buffs would be able to play keep away for the remainder of the game, pounding the Panther defense with runs from freshman Dakota Trentham, Padgett, Bayless Kinser and Thacker. But West Greene's offense ended up fourth and 11 at the Panther 34 yard line and turned the ball over on downs with 3:11 to play, giving Cumberland Gap an opportunity to win the game on a final offensive drive.
The Panthers looked poised to score, connecting on passes of four, 12 and 23 yards, moving all the way to the Buff 14 yard line with just under a minute left in regulation. But West Greene's defense hammered Nance, forcing a fumble. The Buffs' Dylan Kirk recovered, sealing the victory.