Down big to Beech in the first half, Bartlett head coach Lance Tucker said he told his players they would find out what kind of men they were in the second half.
“Are you gonna be the man who throws his helmet, and cries and pouts, or are you going to take it one play at a time,” Tucker said.
The Panthers got the kickoff in the third quarter and quickly drove 63 yards in three plays, with quarterback Braylen Ragland throwing a 51-yard touchdown pass to Deshaun Catron to make the score 35-20.
Bartlett (11-3) would have to stop the Buccaneers’ formidable running attack to have any chance of a comeback Friday, Nov. 25, in the semifinal game for the state high school football championship.
Beech running back Darius Johnson had run through the Bartlett defense in the first quarter, scoring three touchdowns to give Beech a 21-0 lead.
Ragland then hit Jeremiah “Snap” Reed for a 35-yard touchdown pass and Bartlett, down 21-7, started to settle in on defense.
But nothing went Bartlett’s way in the first half.
A high snap went over the head of punter Zack Clutch, who recovered the ball and tried to kick it away, but two-way player Darius Johnson blocked the kick and scored a touchdown, his fourth of the night.
Bartlett cut the first half lead to 28-13 with a Ragland touchdown pass to junior Snap Reed that spanned 61 yards. It was the 100th career reception for Reed.
Bartlett got the ball back with 3:28 left in the half. On that drive, Ragland was forced out of the pocket and Beech caused a fumble, recovering it at the Bartlett 35 yard line. A Bartlett player could have recovered the fumble, but tried to pick the ball up and run with it and never got control of the football.
With 31 seconds left in the half, Buccaneers running back JP Courtney got the pitch for a sweep around left end and instead of running threw a pass to Tyler Nix for a 14-yard touchdown, making it 35-13 at the half.
After the quick Bartlett touchdown to begin the second half, Beech quarterback Justyce Law dropped back to pass and his pass floated into the hands of Bartlett linebacker David Milburn, who returned it 34 yards for a Panthers touchdown.
Suddenly, it was a one-score game at 35-27 with 9:17 remaining in the third quarter.
On its next possession, Trent Sheely took over at quarterback for Beech. The Buccaneers drove into Bartlett territory and Darius Johnson again got loose on a long run and was headed for the end zone. But Bartlett defensive back Devin Rutherford came up behind him, punched the ball out of his hands and teammate Marco Tyson recovered it at the Bartlett 7.
Bartlett could not advance the ball and had to punt. The punt took a Beech bounce and the Buccaneers started their next drive at the Bartlett 38.
Bartlett held Beech to a fourth-and-4. Johnson got the hand off and was hit by Rutherford short of the line to gain, and Bartlett took over on downs.
After a holding call and a sack, Bartlett faced a third-and-27 from its own 24. Ragland hit Snap Reed and Reed ran the ball to the Beech 8 yard line for a 68-yard gain.
On third down, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Ragland hit Catron for an 8-yard touchdown pass, pulling Bartlett to within two, 35-33, after the 2-point conversion try failed.
Bartlett’s defense again held against Beech, forcing the Buccaneers to punt. On its next drive, Bartlett ran the ball seven times, the last play a 1-yard run by Jared Hunt for a touchdown, giving Bartlett a 39-35 lead.
Ragland was sacked on the 2-point conversion try, but the Panthers had rattled off 26 unanswered points to take their first lead of the game with 7:30 left.
“Does that comeback not show the character of these Bartlett kids?” Tucker said after the game. “I told them there is no 28-point play we can draw up, we just have to keep winning them one at a time, one at time, one at a time, and we did, and got back into it and went ahead.”
Beech would come back on its next drive and reclaim the lead, though, with Courtney running it in from 14 yards out, making it 41-39. The snap on the extra point was bobbled and Beech tried unsuccessfully to run it in, but Bartlett was called for a face mask on the run and after the penalty was assessed, Beech decided to go for a 2-point conversion. Courtney ran the ball in, giving the Buccaneers a 43-39 lead with 4:14 remaining.
So instead of a field goal to win the game, Bartlett would need a touchdown in the closing minutes to advance to the title game.
Starting from its own 43 after the kickoff, Ragland was tackled for a loss of 3 on first down, then threw an incomplete pass. On third-and-13, Ragland was under pressure and threw over the middle where Beech defender Jordan Lee intercepted the pass, giving the Buccaneers the ball at their own 43 with 3 minutes left.
Beech made a couple of first downs and Bartlett was forced to use all of its timeouts. In the closing seconds, Johnson rattled off another 26-yard touchdown run to make the final score 50-39.
“It just took everything to get back in it, and then there wasn’t that much fight left at the end,” Tucker said.
He noted that every game the Panthers faced going back to the Collierville game on Oct. 21 was a big game, each playing a vital role in Bartlett just making it to the playoffs, much less getting to the semifinal game.
“It has been a hard six to eight weeks for us and it caught up with these kids. That’s sports at its best.”
Ragland threw for 289 yards with four touchdown passes. Snap Reed had 164 receiving yards and two TDs along with getting his 100th career reception, Catron had 94 yards receiving and two TDs, and Geron Johnson had 29 yards receiving.
Terrell Neal led Bartlett in rushing with 49 yards and Geron Johnson had 36. Ragland rushed for 20 yards.
On defense, senior Rahmaan Rinkin had an interception, Milburn had the 34-yard pick-6, and Rutherford forced the key fumble that was recovered by Marco Tyson.
As a team, Beech rushed for 375 yards. Its only completed pass was the 14-yard touchdown from Courtney to Nix. Darius Johnson rushed for 301 yards with 4 rushing TDs and the blocked punt TD.
Beech (13-1) will face Oakland (13-1), a 38-15 winner over Maryville in the other semifinal game, for the high school football state championship on Saturday, Dec. 3, in Chattanooga.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a group of young men, and their parents, buy in like ours did,” Tucker said of the 2022 Panthers team. “They came to workouts, they came to everything we did all year long and never complained.
“I’m not the easiest coach in the world to play for. I coach hard … and when you can coach hard in this day and time and kids keep coming back for more, you know you’ve got something special, and these kids kept coming back for more, until the very last play.”