Franklin-Simpson did it.
Heavy underdogs. Shutout 48-0 last year. None of that matters now.
In Saturday's Class 4A Russell Athletic/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl championship at the University of Kentucky's Kroger Field, the Wildcats earned their revenge on defending state champion Johnson Central, playing with a lot of heart and passion from start to finish to earn a 35-21 win.
It's Franklin's first state title since 1980 and just its third ever.MORE COVERAGE
"Wow," Franklin-Simpson head coach Doug Preston said. "We've been telling the kids all year that this was our goal and we told them this week that the only people that believed Franklin-Simpson would be state champions were the people in Franklin. When we were in the locker room, we promised them if they would do what we worked on and played smart, we would be state champions today."
Earlier in the season, no one would have predicted the Wildcats to be on top of Kentucky's Class 4A or, better yet, even be playing in the state final. Franklin-Simpson kicked off the year on a rough note by losing three of its first five games and everyone was marking them out.
Instead of giving up and losing hope, the Wildcats turned things around and went on to win nine straight games before closing their remarkable campaign with a state championship trophy they can add to a collection that's been building dust for quite some time.
“It means everything," Franklin-Simpson running back Tre Bass said. "We’ve worked so hard since the summer and overcame adversity and just came out on top, and I think God for it. I can’t even explain it – it just means so much.”
After not scoring a single point last season, Franklin-Simpson was the first to put points on the scoreboard this time around.
Following a pass from Rylan Thomas to wide receiver Jevon Covington for a big gain, Bass ran from 30 yards out for a Wildcats' touchdown to give them a 7-0 lead at the 7:26 mark of the first quarter. Bass took a handoff from Thomas and sprinted untouched down the left sideline.
Just five minutes later, Franklin doubled its advantage, scoring on a 73-yard strike from Thomas to Bass. Thomas received the snap, stepped back and took some time and then unloaded a deep ball to Bass, who made the reception and marched into the end zone.
The Wildcats were up 14-0 after one — and that margin continued to increase.
“We came out and we smashed them in the mouth," Thomas said of the Wildcats' big start. "We were running the ball down their throat and we were passing the ball well. I mean, we’re not much of a passing team, but when I can step out and throw the ball and have some time, it feels awesome.”
Covering 50 yards in seven plays, Franklin pushed its advantage to 21-0 at the 9:50 mark of the second on a 1-yard keeper by Thomas. Getting to the one-yard line after successful runs by Saul Brady, Thomas was able to cross the pylon with a dive.
Johnson Central found the end zone for the first time on a 49-yard pass from Ryley Preece to Seth Dalton. A short four-play drive, Dalton was wide open to reel in the catch and cut the Wildcats’ lead to 21-7 with 7:45 left in the period -- and that's what the board read at halftime.
“You’ve gotta give the credit to our kids. They did it," Preston said. "I love ‘em – they’re a great bunch of kids. Started from the bottom now we’re here … I’ve been telling them that all year. Just a super group of kids and I can’t be more proud or happy.”
At the break, Thomas was 4-of-5 for 142 yards and a TD while Bass had tallied 131 total yards -- 73 in the air and 58 on the ground -- with his two scores. The Wildcats were outgaining the Golden Eagles 205-109 and were 2-for-2 on fourth down conversions.
Thomas finished 6-of-7 for 195 yards and a TD. Bass tallied 149 yards with three TDs. Franklin-Simpson had 386 total yards to Johnson Central's 246.
Bass continued to dominate in the second half.
“My motivation was people saying that we were gonna lose," said Bass. "I just wanted it for my city.”
On his fifth carry of the contest, Bass recorded his second rushing touchdown, this time from 16 yards out. Bass' TD capped a 9-play, 52-yard drive that knocked 3:53 off the clock and moved Franklin's advantage to 28-7 at the 8:03 mark of the third quarter, but Johnson Central responded.
Trailing 28-7, the Golden Eagles cut their deficit to 28-14 after Preece and Dalton connected for their second scores. Needing just one play, Preece threw a 62-yard bullet to Dalton to finish off what was just a nine-second series. It also moved the quarterback to over 100 yards passing in the game.
A three-yard touchdown run for Carlos McKinney with 6:35 left put Franklin up 35-14 and although Johnson Central scored in the final minute on a short run of its own, the Wildcats were already celebrating on the sideline.
"We’ve worked hard since I’ve been here and to get to the mountain top finally and win one, it’s just amazing,” said Preston.Senior writer Tyler Mansfield can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @_TylerMansfield.