Bell plays keep-away but can’t overcome CAL in state title game

Published 4:55 pm Monday, December 4, 2023

By Mike Marsee

Contributing Writer

LEXINGTON – Bell County did the only thing it could do to keep Christian Academy’s combustible offense off the field. It still wasn’t enough.

The Bobcats worked desperately to possess the ball for as long as possible Saturday in the Class 3A championship, but Christian Academy of Louisville made the most of the time its offense had on the field in a 41-16 victory at Kroger Field.

CAL scored on its first four offensive series and five of six possessions in all to nullify Bell’s massive advantage in time of possession and win its second consecutive state title and its fourth in eight seasons.

Bell coach Dudley Hilton knew the young Bobcats were an obvious underdog against a CAL team that was ranked No. 1 in Class 3A all season, and he remained upbeat after the game as he praised his team’s performance.

“I think they knew we were out there, and that’s what we wanted,” Hilton said. “We wanted to win – there ain’t nobody that wanted to win more than us – but sometimes you’ve just got to know when you’re going against a giant.”

Bell (13-2) used a typically powerful ground game to put up impressive offensive numbers on its way to its second state finals appearance in the past five seasons, but that wasn’t the goal against CAL (14-1), whose numbers were as good or better thanks to a potent passing attack.

Hilton figured the Bobcats’ only chance to win was to shorten the game, and they did just that with an impressive drive that lasted almost 13 minutes, keeping CAL’s offense off the field until the second quarter.

“I know the key to (stopping) a very successful, high-powered offense is to not let them have the ball. We did that,” Hilton said.

Hilton’s strategy came as no surprise to CAL coach Hunter Cantwell.

“I thought they had a phenomenal game plan coming in,’ Cantwell said. “They’re a very tough football team, they executed at a high level and they gave us everything that we wanted and more. It was a lot better game than people thought it was going to be.”

CAL’s total time of possession (12:12) didn’t match the elapsed time of Bell’s opening drive (12:46), but the Centurions made the most of their time with the ball. None of their five scoring drives took as much as three minutes, and they averaged 9.4 yards on just 30 plays.

Bell ran 65 plays, and 20 of them came on the 75-yard march at the start of the game that gave the Bobcats an 8-0 lead. Every one of those 20 plays was an interior run, including the 6-yard touchdown run by Blake Evans.

The Bobcats rolled the dice early, when Daniel Thomas ran for 4 yards on fourth-and-2 from their own 33-yard line. They converted on fourth down again from the CAL 31 when Thomas needed 1 yard and got 2.

“We kept the ball away from them … and that was our game plan, and I’m glad they played along with us,” Hilton said.

But CAL went to work as soon as Bell’s big drive was done. Cole Hodge, who was named the Kentucky Football Coaches Association’s Class 3A player of the year before the game, threw long over the middle for a 41-yard gain on the Centurions’ first play from scrimmage, and he scored just two minutes later on a 1-yard run.

The Centurions then made a critical defensive adjustment, and coach Hunter Cantwell said switching from a four-man front to a five-man front helped them keep Bell from running the ball down their throats.

“That was the difference in the game, and the offense kept on clicking when they were out there,” Cantwell said.

Hodge ran for three touchdowns and threw for two more. He was 18 for 20 for 225 passing yards, and he rushed for a team-high 37 yards.

Bell’s Thomas, who set KHSAA single-season records for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and points this season, ran for 133 yards and a touchdown on 40 attempts.

Both Thomas and Hodge were expected to be on the ballot for Mr. Football that the KFCA sent to coaches Monday.

The Bobcats went to Thomas on another fourth-down attempt in their own territory on their second series, but he was stopped for a 2-yard loss and CAL took over at the Bell 32.

The Centurions scored in six plays on a 7-yard run by Hodge to take a 14-8 lead that stood at halftime.

Hodge’s 31-yard pass to Justin Ruffin on the opening series of the second half made it 21-8, but Bell was not done.

A pass interference penalty on fourth down moved the Bobcats to the CAL 36, and Thomas got to the outside for a 36-yard touchdown run that capped an eight-play, 75-yard drive.

CAL scored again 62 seconds later on another rushing TD by Hodge, then put the game out of reach when John Cobaugh stripped the ball from Evans and returned it 77 yards for a TD that gave the Centurions a 34-16 lead.

Bell quarterback Blake Burnett, a sophomore, was 4 for 6 for 57 passing yards and had 31 rushing yards, and he recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter.

“He played his heart out here tonight against a very good team,” Hilton said.

Evans ran for 14 yards and both of the Bobcats’ two-point conversions and Kaleb Miller had five kickoff returns totaling 115 yards.

“I believe we gave our best effort, and that’s really all you can do,” Thomas said.