KINGSPORT — Sullivan North has grown accustomed to being labeled an underdog.
Even though the Golden Raiders (12-0) were ranked No. 3 in the final Associated Press state poll, Austin-East (8-4) gets the nod from oddsmakers for tonight’s 3A state playoff quarterfinal football game.
Three of the Roadrunners’ losses have been to Knoxville powers West, Powell and Carter.
Speed will be the buzzword at Benny Compton Field. East has plenty and North’s got its fair share.
The two teams will be jockeying to see which faces the Alcoa/CAK winner in next week’s TSSAA semifinals — just one game away from the BlueCross Bowl, scheduled for Friday, Dec. 2, at Cookeville.
This is North’s best football sason ever. Surrounding communities have united around the Raiders, whose lack of a middle school feeder program makes them a sentimental favorite.
It has been a wet week in Kingsport. Coach Robbie Norris managed to keep the Raiders’ powder dry by practicing Wednesday on Dobyns-Bennett’s artificial surface rather than wade through puddles of water at North.
Gametime weather shouldn’t interfere with play but a soft field could negate Austin-East’s overall advantage in speed.
North has its own scooters in quarterback Cory Rowe and running backs Kairi Thompson and Jacob Jasper.
The Raiders’ double-wing offense has been highly productive. They are averaging 44.5 points in the playoffs.
Defense is A-E’s primary strength. Its offense is nothing fancy but the Knoxvillians execute well.
The Roadrunners’ lightning-quick defense, which returns nine starters from 2010, is capable of shutting down much of what North does.
Linebacker Jarod Henderson (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and defensive end DeMarcus Nolan (6-foot, 220) were all-state selections last year. Nose tackle Jordan Jones (6-3, 315) can be a load to handle in the middle. Linebacker Cordy Cox (5-9, 200) and cornerback David Rucker (6-0, 170) are impact players.
Quarterback Jaquail Williams puts explosion in the Roadrunners’ pro-I offense with his playmaking ability. A-E tailback Curtis King has gained 1,600-plus yards.
“Austin-East is tailback-oriented and relies on a lot of toss sweeps,’’ Norris said. “(The Roadrunners) try to run the ball outside as much as possible. When the quarterback throws, it’s usually deep.’’
Special teams are likely to play a role in determining the outcome. “It’s special teams, defense and offense — in that order of importance — that win playoff games,’’ Norris said.
East’s play has been somewhat schizophrenic. The Roadrunners defeated Alcoa 24-7 but lost to Gibbs 14-7.
“They are very talented and athletic,’’ Norris said.
Roadrunners offensive linemen Tyrone Crowder and Dennius Troutman have been dominant at times. Crowder is a Division 1 prospect; Troutman grades out as the team’s best blocker.
North has been in the hunt for a state championship since its ultra-success in baseball in the school’s early years. The dream is now alive for a football title.
There is an air of confidence on campus. “The school’s morale is high. We’ve been having huge crowds and a lot of well-wishers,’’ Norris said. “We’re excited and the players are loose. I promise they won’t quit.’’
In the playoffs, North has beaten South Greene 41-14 and Chuckey-Doak 48-41. The Roadrunners have won over West Greene 21-6 and Elizabethton 16-7.