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A defense left for dead puts Bowling Green football back atop Class 5A

At the start of the season, Bowling Green’s defense was toothless. By the end, it carried the Purples to their eighth state title.

Bowling Green defeated Cooper 28-14 to win the Class 5A UK HealthCare Sports Medicine Football State Final on Saturday at Kroger Field. It was the school’s first championship since 2020.

After yielding 757 yards to Lexington Christian Academy in a season-opening 56-52 loss at Western Kentucky University, it was tempting to dismiss Bowling Green as a contender. The besmirched unit gave up more than 700 yards over its next two games — a 42-28 win over Owensboro and a 38-35 loss to Class 6A finalist Bryan Station — but started to round into form during a six-game win streak. Another dud preceded the postseason — St. Xavier gained more than 400 yards in a 27-12 loss that snapped the win streak — but it was game-on from there.

In five playoff games, the Purples gave up just 799 total yards and 43 points, a far cry from their lackluster showing on Aug. 19.

“I’m very proud of our team, and in particular a unit that was picked on a lot and not very well-respected at the first of the year,” Purples coach Mark Spader said. “But they continued to work, and that’s high school football. That’s why I love it so much.”

Bowling Green players celebrate after winning the Class 5A state championship by defeating Cooper at Kroger Field in Lexington on Saturday. The championship was the school’s eighth.
Bowling Green players celebrate after winning the Class 5A state championship by defeating Cooper at Kroger Field in Lexington on Saturday. The championship was the school’s eighth.
Bowling Green’s Jaxen Smith (24) celebrates after scoring one of his two touchdowns Saturday.
Bowling Green’s Jaxen Smith (24) celebrates after scoring one of his two touchdowns Saturday.

After the teams exchanged three-and-outs Saturday, Bowling Green recovered a fumble at the Jaguars 34 to set up its first score, a 31-yard pass from Deuce Bailey to Matthew Klein about three minutes into the game. Bailey three and a half minutes later delivered a 43-yard TD strike to Trevy Barber on the Purples’ next possession. Cooper got on the board soon thereafter — Isaiah Johnson reeled in a 24-yard pass from Cam O’Hara, and a shootout appeared imminent. After one quarter, the teams had combined for 35 plays (20 Cooper, 15 Bowling Green) and 235 total yards (107 Cooper, 128 Bowling Green).

But the clamps came out: Bowling Green (12-3) held the Jaguars to 86 yards on their remaining 50 plays. The Purples added touchdowns in the second and third quarters — a short catch and a short run, both by Jaxen Smith — to take a 28-7 lead into the fourth.

Cooper (12-3) cut the lead in half 15 seconds into the final period via an 11-yard connection between O’Hara and Austin Alexander. The Jaguars recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff at the Purples’ 33 but couldn’t turn it into points. They forced quick punts on the next three Bowling Green drives but couldn’t move forward: After the final touchdown, Cooper ran 20 plays and netted only 6 yards.

Bowling Green quarterback Deuce Bailey (2) was named MVP of the Class 5A state championship game after passing for 199 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 70 yards.
Bowling Green quarterback Deuce Bailey (2) was named MVP of the Class 5A state championship game after passing for 199 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 70 yards.

Before the fourth-down fumble recovery, Cooper had also gained three extra possessions via interceptions. It came away with zero points off turnovers while the Purples turned two fumbles into 14 points.

“The defense stepped up the whole game like we’ve been doing the whole playoffs,” said Sylas Stevens, a sophomore defensive back.

Purples quarterback Deuce Bailey was named MVP. He was 16-of-28 with the three interceptions, but threw for 199 yards and all three TDs. The junior also extended several possessions with his legs, finishing with a game-high 70 yards on seven carries.

The Purples’ first score set the tone after Bailey evaded a defender, rolled out to his right and delivered the game’s first TD to Klein. It was a much better start and overall performance for Bailey, who completed less than half his passes for Bowling Green in last year’s Class 5A finals, a 28-7 loss to Frederick Douglass.

“We had to get that bad taste out of our mouth from last year,” Bailey said. “We just had a feeling burning up in us, and I think our guys really took that into consideration and came out and got after it.”

Alexander is a 6-foot-3 junior whom 247Sports ranks as a four-star recruit and the top prospect in Kentucky’s class of 2025. UK, Notre Dame and North Carolina are among several schools recruiting him as a defensive end; he had three solo tackles and one sack Saturday.

Wrap-up from the 2023 Kentucky high school football state championships

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Four-peat: Boyle County blanks Covington Catholic in dominating state finals performance

They had the football for 12 minutes. Here’s how they won a state championship anyway.

‘Tears of joy this time.’ Mayfield soars in record-setting Class 2A football championship.

‘You win with good people.’ Pikeville overpowers Raceland for state title three-peat.