CHATSWORTH -- The Mountaineers of North Murray High School have a lengthy bus ride ahead of them next week, but they couldn't be happier about that impending trip to Savannah to take on Jenkins, as they earned that opportunity with a 24-14 victory over visiting Jackson Friday night -- and ran their winning streak to 11 in the process.
With the win, North Murray advances to the first football Elite Eight in school history.
The Mountaineers, the top seed in Region 6-3A, relied on a stout defense to hold the fort while the offense found their footing in Friday's night's Sweet 16 matchup. The Red Devils, who came in with a record of 8-3 this season and as the second seed in Region 4-3A, started three drives in North Murray territory in the first quarter, but scored zero points.
After Ladd McConkey's first of three interceptions, Jackson was within a yard of scoring, but North Murray stuffed them on three consecutive plays to reclaim possession.
"That killed (any of their) momentum," said North Murray coach Preston Poag. "We battled like that on defense all game."
Jackson only passed roughly a fourth of the time, so the Mountaineers knew that defending the run and "being physical" would be paramount Friday, said Dylan Flood, a linebacker and senior captain.
"Our defense is the soul of this team," Flood added.
Following a scoreless first quarter, North Murray claimed first blood, converting on fourth down with a 19-yard touchdown pass from McConkey to Hayden Hulett -- who broke open on a corner-post route -- to lead 7-0 only nine seconds into the second quarter. That score held into the second half, until Flood -- who also plays fullback for the Mountaineers -- plowed his way into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown with six minutes remaining in the third quarter to double the home side's advantage.
"That felt good," Flood said of his short touchdown plunge. "That took us to the next level, and momentum shifted."
However, a Jackson offense that had been inert most of the game suddenly came to life, aided by a pair of personal foul penalties on the home team, and a 2-yard touchdown run by Anthony Henderson cut the margin to seven with 3:46 left in the third quarter. The Mountaineers responded, however, as a 42-yard run by D'Ante Tidwell and a 27-yard carry by McConkey got the home side in range for a 20-yard Owen Hannah field goal with 10:07 left in the contest that made it a two-possession game.
"We don't ever get rattled, and we keep each other up," Poag said. "We're a veteran team with a lot of grit."
McConkey nearly sealed the game with a 48-yard scamper, but he fumbled on the doorstep, and Jackson recovered in the end zone for a touchback. North Murray's defense delivered the ball back to McConkey, though, and the senior quickly redeemed himself, tossing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Tidwell to extend the lead to 17 with 4:34 remaining.
The Red Devils refused to capitulate, as Henderson got behind the secondary for a 69-yard touchdown pass from Carson Biles that brought his side within 24-14 with 3:34 remaining. Hulett recovered an onside kick attempt, though, to essentially extinguish comeback hopes, and Jackson's final offensive play resulted in an interception in the end zone by Landon Burrell with 29 seconds remaining in the game.
Jenkins defeated Dawson County 42-9 Friday to set up their matchup on the day after Thanksgiving with North Murray.
"(Jenkins) is good and fast, and we can't have turnovers like we did tonight," Poag said. "We need to cause some turnovers against them.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team. They deserve this (opportunity)."