When Sullivan South’s football team tangled with Elizabethton during the Three Rivers Conference jamboree, many fans saw it as a preview of the conference championship game.
South got the best of Elizabethton in their brief encounter back in August, coming away with a 21-7 victory that buoyed the hopes of the Rebel faithful.
Eleven weeks later, the Rebels (9-0, 5-0) and the Cyclones (8-1, 5-0) will indeed meet tonight in Death Valley with the league title hanging in the balance.
Many factors will determine the winner of tonight’s game, but South coach Sam Haynie said his team’s dominant performance against the Cyclones in August won’t have anything to do with the outcome.
“We’ve got to throw that out because that was 11 weeks ago and two different football teams,” Haynie said. “Elizabethton is very, very good. In 2009, we beat Tennessee High 21-0 in the jamboree and they turned around and beat us 31-7 in the regular season.
“We played (Elizabethton) for a little while, but that’s not something that has affected our preparation.”
The biggest factor in tonight’s game may end up being how both teams are able to deal with a litany of nagging injuries.
South was missing three defensive starters last week, and that allowed Johnson County to have some success running the ball against the stingiest defense in the conference. But Haynie said he expects his defense to be at full strength this week.
“Everybody’s healthy, as healthy as they can be for Week 10, and we should be ready to go,” Haynie said. “All those guys are practicing and we look like we’re full bore right now.”
South will need a full team effort on defense in order to corral Elizabethton running back Ethan Thomas, who has rushed for 1,394 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.
Thomas is averaging a staggering 11 yards per carry due to his ability to gobble up yards after contact, but he has also missed time this season due to injuries. Elizabethton coach Shawn Witten said he doesn’t expect injuries to slow his team down given the stakes of tonight’s game.
“It's Week 10 and guys are tired and sore and playing through injuries,” Witten said. “They have rallied together, and understand the importance of a Week 10 game.”
Haynie said his team has faced plenty of punishing running games this season, but Thomas and Elizabethton quarterback Caleb Bailey bring speed to the table that will require South’s defenders to be in position and make plays.
“Obviously, you’ve got a different animal in Ethan Thomas coming in here and their physical line,” Haynie said. “There’s no secret he’s a good football player. The quarterback can run, Caleb Bailey, he’s a good football player.
“You have to tackle well with those kids. Ethan Thomas runs through a bunch of tackles, and that’s where his big plays come from. So we have to do a good job tackling him.”
Defensively, South’s dynamic duo of Kyle Bond and Jacob Strickler will have to shine in order to keep the Cyclones in check.
Bond leads the league with 102 tackles this season with 16 of those resulting in a loss of yardage. Strickler has 77 tackles to his credit and 12 of those are sacks.
The ability to create negative plays could put Elizabethton in long-yardage situations and take the Cyclones out of their comfort zone.
On offense, South will look to keep the Cyclones guessing as much as possible. Dylan Wieger has is the league’s top passer, completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,628 yards with 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Wieger has thrown 11 touchdowns in the last two weeks alone, and his ability to move the ball through the air should open things up for South’s ground game.
“We try to be balanced, where we can have that option to run or throw,” Haynie said. “We’ve had teams in the past where we can either run really well or throw really well. Fortunately, we’ve been able to maintain that balance and just take what the defense gives us.”
If you go by the statistics, neither team seems likely to give an inch tonight.
Elizabethton boasts the league’s top offense, but South’s offense ranks a close second. On the flip side, Elizabethton’s defense ranks second behind South’s league-leading defensive unit.
When the lights come on tonight, Haynie expects the little things to make the difference in a huge game for both programs.
“Their offensive line is very physical, so we’re going to have to match that on our defensive line,” Haynie said. “And then, a point of emphasis in any high school football game, the team that makes the least mistakes be it turnovers or penalties will win the game.”