Will the Cyclones answer in historical fashion?
“We really have a golden opportunity,” said Elizabethton football coach Shawn Witten. “There’s no other way to put it.”
In the TSSAA Class 4A state semifinals, undefeated and No. 1-ranked Elizabethton will play host to No. 8 Nolensville. At stake is a berth in the BlueCross Bowl, a place only one District 1 team has ever been in 43 years of statewide playoffs.
Elizabethton is 13-0 on the season while Nolensville is 11-2. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 o’clock at Citizens Bank Stadium.
Witten, who will be in his sixth semifinal game as a player or coach for Elizabethton, said he expects a special event with excellent football weather (44 degrees, clear with calm winds) in the forecast.
“Our whole community should be there to witness this game,” said Witten, who coached the Cyclones to the semifinal round in 2009, 2010 and 2012. “It has been remarkable for us to be the only team left from Knoxville this way. Our kids deserve this support.”
The Knights began the season with eight straight wins before a 25-23 loss to Class 6A Franklin, a team that finished 5-6. The next week, with the region title on the line, Marshall County scored the first 30 points of the game and defeated Nolensville, 30-14.
The Knights bounced back with playoff wins over Macon County, previously unbeaten Livingston Academy, and DeKalb County — which upset Marshall County in the second round.
Nolensville is averaging 35 points per game while giving up 10.
Witten said the Knights attack defenses with multiple formations.
“They are a wide-open team offensively,” said Witten. “They use the same personnel group, but they have a lot of different formations. They really don’t sub a lot. They do a lot of motions and shifts. And they do a great job of moving (Tim) Coutras around to keep him from getting doubled.”
Coutras is the Knights’ Mr. Football finalist. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver has committed to Liberty University. This season he has close to 1,000 yards receiving with 14 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 223 yards and five scores.
“They do a lot of wide receiver screens with him,” said Witten. “We have to do a great job on coverage, not giving up the big play. And we have to make sure we don’t leave somebody else wide open. Sometimes teams get so worried about him, they don’t account for other people.”
But it’s not all about Coutras. Quarterback Ryder Galardi has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns with four interceptions. He has also rushed for six scores.
“(Galardi) is their main runner,” said Witten. “They do enough with him to keep you honest with the front and linebackers. And they put a lot on him to make throws and decisions. We want to make him uncomfortable.”
Nolensville coach Paul Derrick said everything goes through Gilardi, adding, “He’s a great player for us.”
Running backs Ryan Pistulka (696 yards) and Samson Johnson have combined for 19 touchdowns.
Leading the way is Mr. Football semifinalist Bryson Rollins. The sophomore has passed for 2,005 yards with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has rushed for 792 yards and 14 scores.
Cade Maupin has rushed for 1,402 yards with 11 scores while receiver Parker Hughes completes the triplet package with 882 yards receiving and 16 scores.
The offensive line has been very impressive, especially of late.
“Elizabethton is a really good football team, very well coached,” said Derrick. “They are very good scheme-wise and their kids play hard. They know where to go and what to do. Not one thing stands out in particular, just a solid football team. We will have to play our best football, and we’ve done that the past three or four games.”
The Cyclones average 37 points per game while giving up 11.
Coutras is an equal threat on the defensive side of the ball, with eight interceptions in each of the last two seasons from his strong safety position.
“(Coutras) does a great job on both sides of the ball,” said Derrick. “He’s the quarterback of the defense and makes all of the calls and checks. He is a phenomenal football player.”
The Knights have 23 picks as a team and have scored four defensive touchdowns in the playoffs.
Dan Rickert is the team’s leading tackler with 61, including 5.5 sacks. Defensive end C.J. Ware has committed to Miami, Ohio.
“The kids are well coached,” said Witten. “They’ve got smart kids. They’re not very big, but do a great job with multiple defensive looks.”
It’s a rock-solid unit with Duece Morton, Joseph Kechter, Jordan Haynes and Carson Stresemann among the key players. Jake Roberts (four interceptions) and Hughes are threats as well.
THE BUS RIDE
Nolensville’s ride to Elizabethton is close to a five-hour journey.
“It’s something we haven’t had to deal with before,” said Derrick. “We will break it up the best we can, stop halfway and eat lunch. At this time of year it’s something you have no problem doing to play a very important football game. We will handle it the best we can.”
Witten said his team needs to do the right things on offense.
“I think the success comes down to offense, our ability to keep their offense off the field,” he said. “If we can establish the run and spread the ball around, we can make it tough on them.”
THE FINAL WORD
Certainly the Cyclones have earned this spot with their tremendous season thus far. And they have been playing lights-out football over the past several weeks.
“The kids have peaked at the right time in all phases,” said Witten. “They have really played sound, disciplined, good football, special teams included.”