by JOE CANNON Banner Assistant Sports Editor
A quick start made the difference in the 40th "Crosstown Clash" Friday evening as Cleveland High invaded Bear Stadium.
As both teams entered the battle with sub .500 records for the first time in history, the Blue Raiders charged out to a 16-point advantage in the opening six minutes but needed a second half score to hold off archrival Bradley Central 23-18.
"We got off to a great start, but Bradley fought back the rest of the way," declared Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford. "We were able to hang on and overcome some mistakes that gave them a couple of scores."
After trailing 16-6 at the intermission, the Bears scored a pair of second half touchdowns but were turned away from Red Zone empty handed three times.
"It's the same problem we've had all year. We get close but are unable to put it in," remarked Bradley head coach Damon Floyd. "It's frustrating not to be able to capitalize on those opportunities."
Both teams scored three touchdowns, but the Bears handed the Raiders two points when a snap sailed over the punter's head and out of the end zone. Plus, the hosts didn't convert any of their points after touchdown tries.
Pulling their overall record even at 4-4, Cleveland is now 3-1 and in second place in the District 5-AAA race. The Raiders have county rival Walker Valley (4-3, 1-2) coming to Benny Monroe Stadium Friday and a short trip to fifth-ranked and unbeaten Ooltewah (8-0, 4-0) on Oct. 24 left in the regular season. The Owls screeched past the Mustangs 45-12 Friday evening.
"Along with it being an intra-county rival, the game with Walker Valley is very meaningful for both teams as far as the playoffs are concerned," related Coach Crawford. "I'm tickled that with all the trials we've been through this year, we are in a situation to be in the chase for a playoff spot."
Despite slipping to 2-5 overall and winless in a trio of district games, Bradley still has a chance at a post-season berth but must win out against their final three opponents.
The Bears travel to Athens Friday to face McMinn County (2-5, 2-1), which has won back-to-back district games, including a 25-15 victory over East Hamilton (1-6, 1-3) two nights ago. Bradley will travel to Soddy-Daisy (3-4, 1-2) on Oct. 24 before wrapping up the regular season at home against the Hurricanes on Halloween.
Cleveland needed just 141 seconds to score Friday evening as the dangerous running back duo of seniors TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion combined to cover 65 yards in just five plays after the opening kickoff.
Playing together for just the third time this season, Bunion took the first two handoffs for five and 27 yards, before Parker bulled for one and three more.
Senior quarterback Austin Massey then hit Parker with a screen pass and despite playing with a broken toe, the Raider speedster was able to maneuver his way 29 yards to paydirt. Junior Brandon Romero split the uprights for the extra-point with 9:39 still showing on the opening quarter clock.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Raider defense forced the Bears to go three-and-out, setting up the errant snap on the punt attempt to give Cleveland's its third safety of the season.
All of safeties have played key roles in victories. The Raiders defeated McMinn County 23-21 and East Hamilton 16-14, both of which included first half safeties. Cleveland also gave up a two-point play in a 23-16 loss to Soddy-Daisy.
After the resulting free kick, the Raiders had double-digit runs by Massey (14), Bunion (22) and Parker (15) in a six-play drive that Bunion capped with a five-yard plunge across the goal line with 6:11 remaining in the first period.
"We dug ourselves a deep hole. We came back and had opportunities to win it, but it eventually proved too much to overcome," commented Coach Floyd.
The Bears answered the opening onslaught on their second possession, needing just three plays to find the end zone.
After junior Swan Parker returned the kickoff 30 yards to the Bradley 40 yard line, a couple of touches by senior Christian Hamilton put the ball at the 45.
Sophomore quarterback Cole Copeland then hit a streaking Tyler Carpenter on the first of nine hook ups between the pair for 146 yards.
The 55-yard post pattern saw the junior receiver out run four Raider defenders for the final 40 yards to paydirt.
Down by 10 points, the Bear coaches decided to go for a two-point conversion, but the Raiders stopped the swing pass behind the line of scrimmage with 4:40 remaining in the first quarter.
The visitors tried to answer, but the ensuing 12-play drive was halted when Bear linebacker Colby Alford picked off an interception and returned it to the 30-yard line.
Neither team could put any points on the scoreboard in the second frame, leaving the tally at 16-6 at intermission.
Bear senior Daniel Clark returned the second half kickoff 40 yards to near midfield before the hosts used seven plays to penetrate the Red Zone. However, once there the Raider defense rose to the occasion, holding Bradley to zero yards on a run, a pass completion and an incomplete pass.
Faced with a fourth-and-10 at the CHS 18, Bradley decided to go for it, but Raider junior defensive lineman Zack Willis had other ideas, sacking Copeland for an eight-yard loss.
After the Black-and-Gold defense forced a three-and-out, the Bear offense dialed up long distance again when Copeland connected with Carpenter on a 52-yard touchdown toss to complete a three-play, 64-yard scoring drive. The extra-point kick slipped wide right with 5:34 remaining in the third quarter.
With the difference trimmed to four points, Cleveland responded almost immediately.
After an excessive celebration penalty was assessed on the ensuing kickoff, Parker returned the ball across midfield. Three plays later Massey hit senior Isaiah Beaty across the middle as he split a pair of Bear defenders for a 44-yard scoring strike. Romero added his third PAT kick for the final Raider point of the night with 3:49 to go in the third frame.
Bradley looked like it was going to counter with another score on the ensuing possession. Using pass completions to sophomore Ty Beavers (22 yards) and senior Bryan Adams (10 yards), plus an 11-yard run by Copeland, the hosts moved the ball to the Raider 2, but a holding penalty and an incomplete pass on fourth down, thwarted the scoring opportunity.
After two more Bear offensive efforts ended in Raider territory (one at the 32 and the other at the 14 after having been at the 9), Bradley finally found paydirt again with 2 1/2 minutes left in the contest.
Junior linebacker Jamey Billups scooped up a Raider fumble at the 14 and returned to the 1 yard line to set up the score. After back-to-back false start penalties moved the ball back to the 11, Copeland avoided pressure and found a wide open Clark in the end zone for the touchdown. The two-point conversion pass once again failed, leaving a five-point difference.
Recovering an onside kick, as well as their sixth fumble on the evening on the first play following, Cleveland was able to run out the clock thanks to an 18-yard run by Bunion, who finished with 117 yards on 11 carries, including the one to paydirt, in his first game back from an injury.
"It was good to have both of our running backs out there, even though we can't use them at the same time. Neither is 100 percent, but they gave us all they had," Coach Crawford commented.
Parker helped out with 123 total yards on 20 rushes and the touchdown reception.
Massey added 27 yards on eight carries, plus completed 5-of-8 passes for 93 yards and a pair of scores.
Copeland countered with a 300-yard performance — 245 through the air and 56 on 20 rushes. The sophomore signal caller completed 13 of his first 15 passes and finished with a 24-of-36 line, including two touchdowns. Clark pulled in five passes for 41 yards, including the scoring catch.
"Copeland really kept his composure and kept them in it," assessed Coach Crawford. "We dropped eight (defenders in pass protection) against him and he still moved the ball on us."
"Cole did all he could do, but we've got to do the right things to help him out," added Coach Floyd. "We've got to execute on every play. We've had too many mental mistakes."
The teams were close in first downs (14-13 Bradley) and total yards (323-315 Cleveland), plus combined for 24 yellow flags for more than 200 yards. The Raiders were flagged 15 times for 131, while the Bears drew nine penalties for 75.
"It was tough with so many of our second half possessions starting with first-and-20 or -25," commented Coach Crawford, whose team earned just two first downs in the second half.
The victory gives the Raiders a 27-13 edge in the series that dates back to CHS' beginnings in 1965. The teams did not play each other in 1981 and 1982, as well as from 1991 to 2000.
Read more: Cleveland Daily Banner - Quick start helps Blue Raiders hold off Bears