Johnson Central finally reached the mountaintop.
The Golden Eagles routed Franklin-Simpson, 48-0, in the Class 4A Russell Athletic/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl state finals Sunday evening at Houchens-L.T. Smith Stadium. It was the first team athletic title in any sport for the school, which opened in 1968 after the consolidation of Flat Gap, Meade Memorial, Oil Springs and Van Lear.
Johnson Central posted the first Class 4A finals shutout since Highlands defeated Collins 47-0 in the 2012 game. It’s the second Eastern Kentucky school to win the 4A crown and first since Bell County did so in 2008.
Box score: Johnson Central 48, Franklin-Simpson 0
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Joe Jackson was named MVP of the game after rushing for 85 yards and three TDs, but it was the Golden Eagles’ defense that carried the torch. Johnson Central held Franklin-Simpson to only one first down the entire night. It outgained the Wildcats, who came into the game undefeated, 403 to 18 in total yardage.
Not bad for a defensive philosophy that Johnson Central Coach Jim Matney said came to him in his sleep the night following his team’s 36-6 loss to South Warren in last year’s finals. An approach that had been geared towards containing powerful teams in Central’s area — like Ashland Blazer and Belfry — needed a retooling towards speed and simplicity.
“We recognized that we were trying to do a couple of real complicated things,” Matney said. “ ... I don’t want people to laugh at me, but it just came to me. I went to bed that night after the state championship game. In the morning I woke up and said, ‘Man, this is what we need to do.’”
The Golden Eagles (14-1) outscored their playoff opponents 259-15. They shutout Ashland Blazer (51-0) and Wayne County (51-0) ahead of the finals.
Johnson Central was within reach of the Eastern Kentucky finals scoring record but ran out of the time after reaching the Franklin-Simpson 17-yard line at the end of the game. Breathitt County set the record in a 52-0 shutout of Corbin in 2002, a mark matched by Belfry in its win over Central in Saturday’s Class 3A finals.
It was the first football championship for Matney in his 33rd season as a head coach. Matney, who guided Sheldon Clark to team wrestling titles in 1994 and 1995, is also the wrestling coach at Johnson Central. Eight of his football starters, including 2015 145-pound division state champion Geordan Blanton, also wrestle. That “absolutely” makes them tougher to guard, Matney said.
Matney called Blanton the best-kept secret in the state of Kentucky. The senior, who’s signed to play baseball at Marshall University, scored Johnson Central’s only receiving TD to help put a running clock into effect in the second quarter.
“He’s an unbelievable, phenomenal athlete,” Matney said. “ ... He’s an incredible secret. It just seemed like nobody knew he existed.
“I kind of think it was good to fly under the radar the whole year. It went our way tonight. I’m very thankful.”
The Golden Eagles won’t be flying under any radars now.