If teams cannot figure out how to stop the connection between Jay Bland and Reece Jesse, the Hopkinsville Tigers are going to be a big problem this season.
Coming into the night, Bland had completed 16 passes to the junior for 257 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers all went up on Friday night.
Jesse finished the game with 12 catches, a career-high 210 yards receiving and three touchdowns as he led the Tigers to a 42-14 win over Caldwell County in the battle of the Tigers at the Stadium of Champions.
Caldwell let Jesse have the short-yardage catches all game long, but the junior three-star prospect was able to break tackles and juke his way to extra yards on nearly every catch.
Hopkinsville head coach Craig Clayton has called Jesse his "go-to guy" in third down and short-yardage situations. He said he thinks Caldwell didn't want to give up the home run, so they settled for the short passes.
"They didn't double him and they backed off so we were going to get some short yards," Clayton said. "I don't think they wanted to get deep on them, but we did once or twice. He actually dropped a ball tonight or two, which he doesn't normally do … He's a great player and a great physical receiver right now."
Jesse's first touchdown and another TD pass from Bland to Lane Rushing put the Tigers up 14-0 midway through the second quarter.
Caldwell got back into the game in the second quarter thanks to DeEric Hollowell's ability to run the ball. Hollowell nearly singlehandedly took the Tigers down the field before Russ Beshear scampered in from four yards out to cut the deficit to 14-7 before the half.
Hopkinsville turned the ball over twice in the first half, both fumbles in Caldwell territory that could have pushed Hoptown even farther ahead.
Clayton said he felt his team should have been up more at the break, but gave credit to Caldwell for sticking in it.
"I was surprised with how well they run on our defense in the second quarter," he said. "They're a gutty team. They're not surrounded by a lot of great athletes, but they play very disciplined. We had to come around and make some adjustments to some things they were doing. I think coach (Dustin) Lopez did a good job making adjustments defensively. (We) just had to overcome those things in the first half."
Clayton said his team's practice leading up to Friday's game wasn't good and believes it showed in the first half.
"We had a terrible week of practice," Clayton said. "We had some kids miss -- I had to sit a couple people down. It was a short week anyway because of labor day and it showed in the first half. We lost two fumbles. We had another two snaps that were bad. Five penalties. At halftime. I explained to them that we can't do that. We're a good football team but you play how you practice during that week. We have to be better prepared. I think we will and this was a good learning experience for us tonight."
In the second half, Hoptown started to get into a rhythm.
Bland found Jesse for his second and third touchdowns of the night and sophomore running back Jayden Dillard found the endzone twice to seal the deal.
Clayton said he is happy with the way Dillard is coming into his own this season.
"Jayden could be an outstanding running back," Clayton said. "He was a little immature last year as a freshman -- he's trying to grow up a little bit this year. He has a great burst and a great vision. He has some things that you can't teach and that's what makes him a natural running back. We're real happy with his progress."
Hopkinsville improves its record to 2-1 on the year and will travel to play Henderson County next week. The good thing for the Tigers? Some big pieces will be back for the matchup against the Colonels.
"We now we get Erick Grubbs back next week, who is our emotional guy on defense and a really good player," he said. "C.J. Walker, one of our outside linebackers didn't play tonight so he'll be back. A couple guys that didn't play tonight for discipline reasons -- they'll be back. We have good competition next week for a bunch of jobs, so hopefully, we can get that going and finish this season out."
Jesse, who now has 28 receptions for 467 yards and seven touchdowns this season, is very confident in both him and his team moving forward.
"Nobody can guard me and nobody can stop us," he said.
HOPKINSVILLE 42, CALDWELL COUNTY 14
Hopkinsville 7 7 14 14 42
Caldwell County 0 7 7 0 14
HOP: Bland to Jesse 5 pass (PAT good), 7-0, 2:55 1Q
HOP: Bland to Rushing 15 pass (PAT good), 14-0, 4:57 2Q
CC: Beshear 3 rush (PAT good), 14-7, 2:50 2Q
HOP: Bland to Jesse 17 pass (PAT good), 21-7, 8:06 3Q
HOP: Dillard 4 rush (PAT good), 28-7, 6:17 3Q
CC: Beshear to Hollowell 4 pass (PAT good), 28-14, 1:18 3Q
HOP: Bland to Jesse 38 pass (PAT good), 35-14, 11:51 4Q
HOP: Dillard 21 rush (PAT good), 42-14, 3:13 4Q
HOP: Dillard 11-78-2, Leavell 4-44
CC: Hollowell 18-141, Beshear 17-47-1
HOP: Bland 17-27-264-4
CC: Beshear 13-21-145-1
HOP: Jesse 12-210-3, Rushing 4-36-1
CC: Wells 4-52, VanHooser 3-37