By Marty Kirkland
HOMERVILLE -- The Clinch County football program has seen its share of postseason battles over the years.
But the Panthers and their fans faced adversity earlier than expected in Friday night's first-round Class A playoff at Donald Tison Stadium, as No. 4 seed Emanuel County Institute came closer than comfortable and nearly pulled off an upset.
The Panthers struggled to maintain drives on offense -- they turned the ball over twice and were inept in the passing game -- couldn't capitalize on the Bulldogs' mistakes and held to a seven-point lead with less than five minutes to play in the game.
But Clinch County stretched the lead when it finally put together a solid drive on offense, then secured a 31-9 win on a 25-yard interception return by nose guard Jonovan Williams with just over three minutes remaining.
The Panthers advance to the second round, where they will host Randolph-Clay, a 35-14 winner over Johnson County Friday.
"I was really suprised," sophomore fullback Justin Gainey said. "I didn't think they would come out that strong or that tough. We just had to go out there and hit them hard and show what Panther football is all about."
But Clinch County head coach Jim Dickerson, who had expected a tough test from the Bulldogs, said his team will learn from the first-round challenge they faced.
"I think this could be a blessing in disguise," he said. "Our region was down this year and we needed a tough game, we needed to handle some adversity.
"Certainly in the second and third round you'll see adversity. Everything had been coming too easy, but this will bring up our intensity and hopefully make us practice harder."
Gainey's 16-yard touchdown run, cutting through the ECI defense, gave Clinch County a 23-9 lead with 4:04 remaining in the fourth.
The seven-play, 43-yard drive covered 3:31 and was the first time the Panthers converted a drive for points in the second half, despite four previous trips inside Bulldogs' territory.
Clinch County held a 16-2 lead at the half, thanks to touchdown runs of 65 and 50 yards by quarterback Lamar McKnight and a safety secured by Jarvis Henderson's tackle of punter Jeffery Boyd in the ECI end zone late in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs' safety came at 6:26 in the first quarter, when ECI's Stephen Johnson and Greg Kirkland tackled Gainey, who had recovered his own fumble near the goal line.
The Panthers finished the game with 250 yards of rushing, but most of that came in the first half. At quarterback, McKnight didn't complete a pass in 12 attempts and also threw an interception.
ECI was more successful through the air, especially in the first half, but Bulldogs quarterback Larrione Carlyle finished 18-of-33 for 213 yards with five interceptions.
Carlyle kept his team rolling on offense, however, and rallied the Bulldogs with a 16-yard pass to receiver Stephen Johnson, who reached over McKnight to make the touchdown catch in the end zone with 1:59 left in the third quarter.
Clinch County's defense made several big plays -- Brion Coleman had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the second quarter -- and, more importantly, kept the Bulldogs at bay while their offensive counterparts were struggling.
"You've got to give credit to ECI's defense," Dickerson said. "They rose up and took away what we do best. They defended us well -- we were a little out of sync, but I don't want to take anything away from them."
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