For the second year in a row and third time in four seasons, the Clinch County Panthers got the best of their region rivals when it mattered most, defeating the Irwin County Indians 27-20 in the Class A-Public state championship game Tuesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The No. 2 Panthers (13-1) claimed their third state title since 2015, with all of them coming against their Region 2 rival — the top-ranked Indians (13-1) — after the Indians won their regular season matchup each time. For the Panthers, it’s their eighth overall championship dating back to 1988.
On Tuesday, Panthers receiver Jeremiah Johnson proved to be the difference with two fourth-quarter touchdown receptions, and he totaled 112 yards on three receptions for the game. His 59-yard scoring catch from Tyler Morehead, which came on third-and-22 with 4:50 left in the game, gave the Panthers a commanding 27-13 lead.
On the play, Morehead’s pass was underthrown, but the 6-foot-7, 200-pound Johnson — who’s rated as a four-star for the class of ‘20 by recruiting services — leaped over his defender to grab the jump ball, then avoided two would-be tacklers shortly after landing. From there, he turned to see an open field and dashed unimpeded to the end zone.
“(Morehead) told me, ‘I’m going to throw it up, go get it’” Johnson said. “I went and got it...I felt a touchdown as soon as he said, ‘hut.’”
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Johnson’s other score came on a 20-yard touchdown pass with 10:17 remaining that gave the Panthers a 20-13 lead. The play was the first from scrimmage after the Panthers recovered Zack Robbins’ squib kick, which took an awkward hop that Irwin County was unable to field. The kickoff came after Robbins’ 40-yard field goal, which tied the game at 13.
The Panthers’ other scores came on a Robbins 30-yard field goal with 11:53 left in the second quarter — which put them on the board trailing 7-3 — and a 48-yard run by Morehead with 5:20 left in the half, which gave them a 10-7 lead they’d take into halftime. Morehead’s run was set up by Johnson’s 33-yard reception on third-and-10 from the Panthers’ 15.
Panthers coach Jim Dickerson, who has led the program since 2004 and now has five titles, was impressed by the way his team climbed through the playoffs, collecting road wins at No. 5 Mount Zion in the quarterfinals, and No. 4 Marion County in the semifinals.
“I can’t explain it,” Dickerson said. “I can’t even put it into words. I’m just so proud of these guys and the way we had to fight through adversity. We were the road warriors in the playoffs...they’re just a wonderful group and the senior class has won three state titles.”
The Indians jumped to a 7-0 lead on a screen pass by Zach Smith to Jamorri Colson that resulted in a 58-yard touchdown with 6:13 left in the first. They wouldn’t score again until 4:54 remaining in this third quarter, when Jamal Paulk ran for a 10-yard score, though Smith would miss the extra kick, leaving them with a 13-10 lead.
They’d score one last touchdown with 1:36 left on Smith’s 15-yard pass to Javon Stanley, which brought the score to its final margin, but they were unable to recover the ensuing onside kick.
Indians coach Buddy Nobles, who has led the program since 2014, was disappointed in the game’s outcome and took exception to how it was officiated. Nobles claimed the Panthers were cut-blocking past the line of scrimmage and weren’t penalized for it.
“I’m tired of us getting cut,” Nobles said. “I’m tired of us not going by the (National High School Federation) rules of people cutting and they don’t call it. You cannot cut block outside of the box, and I’m tired of it. There were about three or four plays that would have given (Clinch County) long distance (field position had a penalty been called). Listen, I’m emotional, but we’re going to get something done with this in the offseason.
“The effort of our team was great, but I’m going to be honest with you, we can’t fight 18. That’s 11 (Panthers players) plus seven (game officials), and I’m tired of it. This may be an embarrassment to my school — really it should be on Buddy Nobles — but I’m tired of us not getting cut blocks called. Either we’re going to get this done, or let’s just go to college level (rules) and let everybody cut.”
Dickerson saw the game’s officiating differently. Clinch County was called for nine penalties totaling 74 yards, while Irwin County was called for three penalties totaling 35 yards.
On one sequence following Johnson’s touchdown that tied the game at 13, the Panthers were called for 32 yards worth of penalties and had to kick off from their own 7.
“Obviously, we probably had more calls go against us than they did,” Dickerson said. “We’ve never kicked off from the (7-yard line) after a touchdown before but with that said, this crew had to be one of the finest crews because they wouldn’t have been working the state championship game. These (officials) are graded out all year long and the best of the best get to do this game.”
Morehead led the Panthers with 83 rushing yards on 19 carries and threw for 121 yards on 4-of-6 passing. He accounted for all three of Clinch County’s touchdowns.
DJ Lundy led the Indians with 127 rushing yards on 15 carries, and Paulk had 11 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown. Smith was 5-of-10 passing for 92 yards, two scores and an interception.
Clinch County 0 10 0 14 - 27
Irwin County 7 0 6 7 - 20
I - Jamorri Colson 58 pass from Zach Smith (Smith kick)
C - Zach Robbins 30 FG
C - Tyler Morehead 48 run (Robbins kick)
I - Jamal Paulk 10 run (kick failed)
C - Robbins 40 FG
C - Jeremiah Johnson 20 pass from Morehead (Robbins kick)
C - Johnson 59 pass from Morehead (Robbins kick)
I - Javon Stanley from Smith (Smith kick)