RUSSELLVILLE – The Russellville football team turned a tightly contested matchup against Newport Central Catholic into a runaway in a five-minute span, pulling away for a 21-0 win Friday in the third round of the Class A playoffs at Rhea Stadium.
Russellville (11-1) used a strong defensive effort to hold Newport Central Catholic at bay before bursting out for 21 points in the fourth quarter to seal the program’s first region title since 2016.
“We started out kind of slow offensively and that was a credit to Newport,” Russellville coach Mikie Benton said. “I was very confident with our defensive plan. Our defense held strong all game until our offense was able to find their niche and take advantage of it.”
Russellville’s first three offensive drives of the night were seven plays or longer, but the Panthers were unable to put any points on the board.
Newport Central Catholic (9-4) was unable to get its high-powered offense in gear, either. The Panthers’ defense was able to contain quarterback Kolton Smith, holding the Thoroughbreds to 56 yards in the first half.
Despite the defensive effort, the Panthers were still locked in a scoreless tie at the break.
“I told them adversity is always going to strike,” Benton said. “This is playoff football. Having that one by our name (in the RPI rankings), we were going to catch everybody’s best shot. I told the guys that defensively we were good. We’re struggling to move the ball, but we had to stick with it. Stay with each other. Trust each other and that moment was going to come.”
Russellville appeared to get on the board midway through the third quarter when Anthony Woodard returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown, but the score was negated by a penalty and the drive ended without any points.
The defense finally gave the Panthers the spark they needed late in the third when Chevis Elliott intercepted Smith and returned it to the NCC 27.
“I just saw a little crossing route,” Elliott said. “I came up and broke on it and did what I needed to do. We know when we get big momentum we are hard to play with. That was all we needed, one play.”
Three plays later, Jovari Gamble scored from 4 yards out on a direct snap, giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead with 9:52 left.
Russellville added a 40-yard touchdown run from Elliott and a 22-yard score from Gamble on the next two drives to finally get some distance and seal the win.
Russellville outgained Newport Central Catholic 306-134.
The Panthers ran for 258 yards. Gamble led the way with 96 yards. Elliott had 67 yards rushing, while quarterback Lennon Ries finished with 57 yards rushing.
“We just had to stay patient,” Elliott said. “We knew when we got them a little tired that a big play was coming.”
Smith finished 10-for-20 for 112 yards for Newport Catholic Central. The Thoroughbreds had three turnovers, two that led to Russellville touchdowns.
Russellville now advances to host Bethlehem on Nov. 26, looking to advance to the program’s first state final since 1990.
“Home-field advantage for us is going to be huge,” Benton said. “We had a great crowd here tonight. The energy was amazing. We are just ready to do it again next week.”
NCCHS 0 0 0 0 – 0
RHS 0 0 0 21 – 21
RHS – Jovari Gamble 4 run (Dustin Brown kick), 9:52
RHS – Chevis Elliott 40 run (Brown kick), 5:39
RHS – Gamble 22 run (Brown kick), 4:24