Twenty-four football teams across the state got the chance to practice on Thanksgiving, something for which I’m certain all are thankful.
Only one game stands between those programs and the state finals. Let’s have a look at each matchup and make some turkey-infused predictions.
Russellville (12-1) at Beechwood (12-1)
Prospectus: A rematch of last season’s state semifinal, in which Beechwood prevailed 34-25. Each team’s loss was to a higher-class heavyweight — Russellville’s to still-undefeated Franklin-Simpson and Beechwood’s to Covington Catholic, ousted last week by Fern Creek. Beechwood has seven wins against opponents who were .500 or better; Russellvile only has two.
Players to watch: Beechwood boasts a 1,000-yard rusher in senior Aiden Justice, who has 16 touchdowns. Junior Brayden Burch has thrown for 23 TDs and more than 2,000 yards with just five interceptions. Russellville, which is much more run-driven (4,055 yards to just 885 passing), is led by Johnny Drumgole’s 1,002 yards and 12 TDs but Jaylyn McMurry and MJ Jones each have double-digit TDs.
Prediction: Beechwood 28, Russellville 21.
Paintsville (13-0) at Hazard (11-2)
Prospectus: Paintsville fell to eventual-champion Pikeville in the semifinals last season. Hazard is back in the penultimate round for the first time since 2011, when it won its only state title. Their schedules were similar, each playing Pikeville at least once. Hazard avenged a close midseason loss to the Panthers with a decisive 42-19 victory last week.
Players to watch: Junior fullback Cory Smith eclipsed 2,500 rushing yards last week and is averaging nearly 200 yards a game for the Bulldogs, who also boast a 2,000-yard passer in sophomore Baily Blair. Paintsville’s Darren Morris doesn’t have the yardage but does have four more TD throws than Blair, 23-19, on nearly 100 fewer passes. Kent Phelps enters 78 yards shy of a 2,000-yard rushing season for the Tigers.
Prediction: Paintsville 36, Hazard 34.
Mayfield (13-0) at Louisville Christian (12-1)
Prospectus: Louisville’s Centurions exorcised playoff demons against DeSales last week only to be matched up against the Cardinals, who have won 23 straight playoff games and four straight titles. Louisville Christian’s only loss was to Simon Kenton, one of the highest-ranked Class 6A teams all season.
Players to watch: Louisville Christian senior Jacob Paulson, a three-star tight end/defensive tackle, has offers that include Minnesota, Western Kentucky, Marshall, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Mayfield’s Landon Arnett has thrown for 2,952 yards and 38 TDs with only seven interceptions this season. Trajon Bright, who’s got 1,628 yards and 23 TDs this season, last week became the storied program’s all-time leading rusher with 5,645 for his career.
Prediction: Mayfield 21, Louisville Christian 13.
Covington Holy Cross (10-3) at Danville (11-2)
Prospectus: Holy Cross last made it this far in 2011, when it won its only state championship. Danville has 10 state titles, fourth-most in state history, but hasn’t played in the finals since 2006. The Admirals fell to Newport Central Catholic in last year’s semifinal round.
Players to watch: Don Harris is a dynamite two-way player for Danville, having accumulated 117 tackles on defense while rushing for 1,214 yards and 19 TDs. Zack Dampier has completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,151 yards and 38 TDs. Derrick Barnes and Xavier Abernathy, both seniors, have combined for more than 2,000 yards and 36 of CHC’s 49 rushing TDs this season.
Prediction: Danville 28, Covington Holy Cross 7.
Belfry (12-1) at Corbin (12-1)
Prospectus: Big, bad Belfry has four senior offensive linemen — Cole Bentley, Austin Dotson, Ray Horton and Jordan Scott — with Division I futures that hope to win Belfry’s fourth straight title. Belfry ended Corbin’s season in this round last year at home. The Redhounds were a failed two-point conversion away from being undefeated (their loss was to Mayfield, 35-34), while Belfry’s loss was to Knoxville Catholic in Tennessee.
Players to watch: A massive front means Belfry has done its damage by committee, with six rushers accumulating at least 400 yards this season. Corbin leans toward the pass, with Cameron Sizemore having thrown for 2,474 yards and 29 TDs with only six picks. He also leads the Redhounds with eight rushing TDs, just ahead of Chase Estep (seven) and Tucker Jewell (six).
Prediction: Belfry 40, Corbin 20.
Elizabethtown (10-3) at Central (8-5)
Prospectus: Central shook off a slow start to get back to the semifinals after a year away. The Yellow Jackets are 5-1 in this round under 10th-year head coach Ty Scroggins. E-town, which fell at home to Lexington Catholic in last year’s semis, hasn’t advanced to the finals since 2003.
Players to watch: Corey Johnson has 18 TDs and almost 1,000 yards for Central. Luke Bowman has 101 tackles (83 solo) and two interceptions for the Yellow Jackets. Jay Becherer paces the Panthers with 1,118 yards and 14 TDs and five interceptions on the year, two returned for TDs. Kass Disney also has five picks for E-town.
Predictions: Central 31, Elizabethtown 17.
Franklin-Simpson (13-0) at John Hardin (9-4)
Prospectus: A 1-3 start to the season didn’t derail John Hardin, whose offense has exploded in recent weeks. Franklin-Simpson seeks its first finals berth since 2011 while John Hardin hopes for its second appearance ever, the first coming in 2009 when it was in Class 5A.
Players to watch: Steven Livers leads John Hardin with 724 rushing yards but Robert Shorter has the TD edge, 11-6, for the Bulldogs. Saul Brady (1,305 yards) and Josiah Robey (1,081) have combined for 31 Franklin-Simpson TDs while Carlos McKinney has chipped in 12.
Prediction: Franklin-Simpson 35, John Hardin 20.
Wayne County (11-2) at Johnson Central (12-1)
Prospectus: Johnson Central’s Golden Eagles have been on a tear in the postseason, scoring 53 points a game while surrendering just 15 total since dropping their only regular-season game to Belfry. Perhaps Wayne County Coach Shawn Thompson should channel former LSU Coach Les Miles: the Cards’ two losses were against Bryan Station and Knox Central in overtime. They lost at Johnson Central, 21-14, last season in this round.
Players to watch: Johnson Central’s Geordan Blanton, a Marshall University baseball signee, has caught nine TDs, rushed for two, thrown two and returned one for an interception. Joe Jackson has 1,872 yards and 29 TDs for the Golden Eagles. Dalton Garner, the Cards’ leading rusher with 1,059 yards and 20 TDs, didn’t suit up for last week’s win over Mercer County. Lorenzo Linsey and German Ruiz got the bulk of the carries in that game and have combined for about 850 yards and 18 TDs this season.
Prediction: Johnson Central 35, Wayne County 14.
Bowling Green (13-0) at Fern Creek (11-2)
Prospectus: Aside from a hiccup in the first half against Christian County in the second round, Bowling Green has looked unstoppable on offense all season. The Purples have won five of the last six titles while Fern Creek has never played for a championship.
Players to watch: Jamale Carothers has 21 rushing TDs with nine receiving scores and more than 1,800 total yards for the Purples, whose quarterback Clark Payne is as equally scary. The senior has completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,329 yards and 39 TDs with only four interceptions. Fern Creek’s Kyree Hawkins has 18 rushing TDs and five TD receptions on just seven catches all season. He averages 96 rushing yards a game. Armon Wells has picked off three passes and has been in on 106 tackles for the Tigers this year.
Prediction: Bowling Green 49, Fern Creek 14.
South Oldham (12-1) at Pulaski County (11-2)
Prospectus: The Dragons have had no problem piling up points this season, trailing only Bowling Green through 13 games. Pulaski County isn’t as lights-out as is in recent seasons but is still in a spot to claim its fourth straight finals berth. South Oldham has never played for a championship.
Players to watch: Jake Johnson, who this season became the state’s all-time leader in receptions and career yardage, lines up for the Maroons on both sides. He’s got seven interceptions (one returned for a TD) and has recovered three fumbles in addition to his 16 TDs on offense (two rushing). Five players have triple-digit tackles for Pulaski, led by Rickey Maxey’s 166 (94 solo). Drew Zaubi has thrown for 2,074 yards and 28 TDs on the other side, favoring receiver Keanan John, who’s caught 30 passes for 778 yards and eight scores.
Prediction: Pulaski County 38, South Oldham 31.
St. Xavier (10-3) vs. Trinity (13-0) at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium
Prospectus: Trinity walloped St. Xavier in the regular-season meeting and has taken 11 of the last 12 matchups against its esteemed rival. The Tigers were able to twice take out a strong Male team but failed to get much going at Bowling Green, considered by many the second-best team in the state after the Shamrocks. St. Xavier is on a three-game win streak; the last two were followed by big losses.
Players to watch: Trinity junior Rondale Moore has made an immediate impact after being ruled eligible heading into the postseason. He has eight catches for 247 yards and six TDs in two games of work. Roderick Thomas leads the Shamrocks in rushing with 784 yards and 14 TDs. Cincinnati commit Desmond Ridder missed two games this season for St. X but has rushed for a team-high 17 TDs and thrown 10. Workhorse Sam Taylor has rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 14 scores.
Prediction: Trinity 35, St. Xavier 17.
Scott County (11-2) at Lafayette (12-1)
Prospectus: This is the rematch Central Kentucky fans have been aching for since the first contest between the two schools ended abruptly and was ruled a forfeit by the Cardinals, who have since won eight straight. Lafayette, the defending state runners-up, brings a 10-game win streak into the bout. The Generals reached the state finals last season for the first time since 1985. Scott County won the state title in 2013.
Players to watch: Jedrick Wills, a five-star offensive tackle who’s committed to Alabama, anchors Lafayette’s offense. Walker Wood, a Mr. Football favorite, has thrown for 2,655 yards and 26 TDs with 1,183 rushing yards and 26 TDs. A likely target is Quinton Brown, who leads the Generals with 931 yards and nine scores on 58 catches. Scott County boasts two lineman with Division I offers in Bryan Hudson and Colby McKee, a sophomore and senior, respectively. Brice Fryman and Kendrick Hamilton have combined for more than 1,600 yards and 26 rushing TDs for the Cardinals.
Prediction: Lafayette 41, Scott County 38.