Henry Clay running backs Elijah Bell and D.J. Jackson gave an encore performance in leading the host Blue Devils to a 28-13 victory over Paul Laurence Dunbar in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs Friday night.
When Henry Clay beat Dunbar 39-23 last month, Bell and Jackson had 339 rushing yards and four touchdowns between them.
They were a dynamic duo in the rematch, too, shredding the Dunbar defense for 323 yards. Bell ran 20 times for 211 yards and two scores. Jackson ran 24 times for 112 yards and a TD.
"They're as good as I've seen as a combination," Dunbar Coach Paul Rains said. "Not many high school teams have two backs as strong as that."
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As Henry Clay's players celebrated, Coach Sam Simpson pointed toward Bell and Jackson. "Those two kids are awfully good running backs," he said with a smile and an understatement.
Henry Clay (9-2) advances to play at No. 1 Scott County (12-0) in the region finals next Friday. Scott County whipped the Devils 70-34 last month.
Henry Clay had a lot more going for it than just Bell and Jackson against Dunbar.
Quarterback Sammy Carter's 15-yard TD pass to Austin Black on fourth-and-six gave the Devils breathing room with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Henry Clay's defense also delivered big hits after looking shaky early. Senior linebacker Lakwon Givens was a beast, recording 11 solo tackles and six assists. Davonte Robinson and Quentin Gay also helped shut down Dunbar and enabled the Devils to go on a 28-0 run.
Givens said it took Henry Clay's defense a while to adjust to Dunbar's triple-option attack. Bulldogs' quarterback Emory Thompson had a 60-yard TD run on the first play of the game, and a 9-yard score late in the opening quarter to give his team a 13-0 lead.
Jackson's 4-yard TD pulled the Devils to within 13-7 in the second quarter.
Dunbar drove to the Henry Clay nine in the closing minutes of the half, but the Bulldogs wound up missing a 32-yard field goal.
"I was frustrated with my team up until then," Simpson said. "But when we made that defensive stand, it told me, 'Hey, maybe these guys still want to fight for this thing.'"
The Devils talked things over in the locker room at halftime. Adjustments were made, and Dunbar's offense didn't get much done in the second half. Givens said the difference was simple: "Just being men, just playing our keys, just playing as a team."
Bell's short TD run and Taylor Dunbar's conversion kick gave Henry Clay a 14-13 lead early in the third quarter.
Dunbar had a costly penalty late in the quarter. Henry Clay faced fourth-and-4 at its own 24 and was in punt formation. But the Bulldogs jumped offsides, and Henry Clay got the first down. Seven plays later, Carter hit Black with the TD pass.
Bell capped things off with a 72-yard sprint to the end zone with four minutes left.
Bell, the leading rusher in 6A with 1,839 yards, was modest about his big night: "I just thank my coach for believing in me, and my offensive line for blocking."
Despite the loss, Dunbar had a turnaround season in Rains' first year as coach. It had six wins for the first time since 2005, and its first playoff victory since 2007.
"All in all, our kids played with great heart and great effort," Rains said. "We made a great showing for the most part tonight, and our seniors did a great job turning things around this season."
HENRY CLAY 28, PAUL DUNBAR 13
Paul Dunbar 13 0 0 0—13
Henry Clay 0 7 7 14—28
PD—Emory Thompson 60 run (Levi Clark kick). PD—Thompson 9 run (Clark kick). HC—D.J. Jackson 4 run (Taylor Dunbar kick). HC—Bell 4 run (Dunbar kick). HC—Austin Black 15 pass from Sammy Carter (Dunbar kick). HC—Bell 72 run (Dunbar kick).
Records: Dunbar 6-6; Henry Clay 9-2