MOUNT VERNON – It was difficult for the visiting Frankfort Panthers to articulate everything that went into Friday night’s stunning 42-27 victory over the traditionally powerful Rockcastle County Rockets in the annual Jamboree Bowl.
“It’s crazy,” FHS senior quarterback Chris Hawkins said more than once after the Panthers dominated a Rockcastle team that blew out Frankfort 45-8 last season at Sower Field.
Friday’s rematch marked only the second time in the 22-year history of this bowl game that the host Rockets lost.
“You know, we played them last year, and it was rough,” Hawkins said. “It’s great to come down here and give them a little piece of it. I’ve never seen our team like that. We stuck together for four quarters. It felt like the longest game ever, but we got through it.”
And how. The first surprise might have been that Hawkins completed 11 of 23 passing, for 300 yards and four touchdowns, on this way to game MVP honors. It’s not a stunner that Hawkins was capable of doing that, mind you, but simply that the Frankfort coaches LET him throw it 23 times.
“It’s bittersweet because myself and Coach Smith ... we don’t like throwing the ball,” FHS head coach Craig Foley said, tongue in cheek. “But I think we’ve made some wise decisions and kind of got away from this running team, and we’ve decided to put the ball out in the flats and let athletes make plays.”
Foley said the change is “a sign of the times.”
“You have to spread the ball out now and put the ball in the hands of your athletes,” he said. “We don’t have the running backs we’ve had in the past, so we’ve got to get smart now and put ourselves in positions to make plays. And that’s putting our skill kids in the flats. And Chris (Hawkins) is doing a good job of that.”
The Panthers had 356 yards of offense Friday and only 56 of those yards were on the ground.
Most of the night the Rockets faced a steady diet of Hawkins’ passes in the flat or just over the heads of the Rockcastle linebackers into the hands of guys like senior Aaron Jackson and sophomore Jalen Washington.
Washington caught four passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns, while Jackson had four receptions for 113 yards and two scores.
This game began very Rockcastle-like as the Rockets (1-1) took the opening kickoff, and running back Damien McDaniel raced 60 yards on the first play to the FHS 5 and then scored on the next play. Quarterback Corey McPhetridge passed to Eli Haddix for the two-point conversion and it was 8-0 RCHS.
But Frankfort (2-0) struck right back as Hawkins tossed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jackson down the right side on the Panthers’ first play on offense. A pass failed for the conversion, leaving it 8-6 Rockets.
On their next possession, Hawkins hooked up with Jalen Washington on another 66-yard scoring strike, with the conversion kick failing, leaving it 12-8 FHS midway through the first quarter.
Not to be lost in all this is the fact that the Frankfort High defense also was outstanding in this game. The Panthers’ defenders bent a little here and there, but they came up huge when it mattered most.
Like on the Rockets’ ensuing possession when they drove inside the FHS 5-yard-line, and the Panthers forced a fumble that senior Teantre McGee picked up and raced some 93 yards for a touchdown. Dre Scott caught the conversion pass from Hawkins for a 20-8 Frankfort advantage – still first quarter. And Rockcastle was reeling.
Next Frankfort offensive possession: Jalen Waskington scored from 67 yards out off another Hawkins pass in the flat, and McGee ran in the two-point conversion, and it was 28-8 after one period.
Tyler Harper caught a 20-yard scoring pass from McPhetridge early in the second quarter to slice the FHS lead to 28-15, but then the Panthers came right back to score again – this time on a 22-yard pass from Hawkins to Jackson that left it 34-15, Frankfort.
The Rockets stayed alive with a 2-yard scoring plunge by Jacob Bussell in the final seconds of the first half.
The Panthers were never in danger of losing this game down the stretch, though they didn’t put it away for good until Hawkins scored on a one-yard run early in the fourth quarter for a 42-21 lead. JJ Jones caught the conversion pass from McGee on that one.
The FHS defense largely bottled up the Rockets in the second half.
“I’ll tell you, we’re much more disciplined from last year to this year,” Hawkins said when asked about the Frankfort defense. “Everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing ... making plays ... hitting their gaps.”
Foley also says that the Panthers, as a whole, are more disciplined, more mature, than a year ago, just because of age and experience. And Hawkins is a poster child of those qualities.
“Chris has grown up in front of our eyes,” Foley said. “He was excellent tonight. He stayed on the pocket, and he rolled out and did some things and made some great plays to keep drives alive, too.
“And Chris will tell you, up front, they (FHS offensive linemen) were just as good.”
“They were very good, actually,” Hawkins said of his offensive linemen. “It’s a big turnaround from last year. I’m very proud of them.”
But, it all comes back to this for the athletic Panthers – they have so many weapons. It starts with the senior, Jackson, but goes so much deeper.
“It’s crazy,” Hawkins said of his team’s playmakers. “We have a sideline full of them, you know? I don’t have to stick to one or two receivers. I can look to four or five of them.”