By Keeli Parkey
There was a lot on the line when the Unicoi County High School football team (5-4, 3-1) hosted the West Greene Buffaloes (5-3, 3-1) on Friday, Oct. 13, at Gentry Stadium in Erwin, including a home playoff game and a winning record for the season.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, they did not start this game as well as they have games in previous weeks.
“It was very disappointing,” head coach Drew Rice said. “It’s the first time since the beginning of the year that we didn’t have a strong start. I thought our guys fought hard to come back and win it, but it was too little, too late. We can’t dig ourselves into a hole like that against good teams.”
After forcing West Greene to turn the ball over on downs, the Blue Devil offense reached the red zone thanks, in part, to a 37-yard run by Kody Lewis.
“I thought Kody played lights out on both sides of the ball,” Rice said. “He is really coming into his own. For a sophomore, he is about as complete of a football player as you could ask for.”
West Greene kept UCHS out of the end zone and took over on downs with 7 minutes to play in the first quarter. The Buffaloes then put together their first scoring drive of the game for a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Things began to go West Greene’s way in the second quarter as the Buffaloes continued to contain the Blue Devil offense.
“They took away the two things that we have had the most success with, the deep ball and the wide run to the outside,” Rice said. “They had a good game plan and they executed it well.”
The Buffaloes took a 10-0 lead on a field goal with 4 minutes to play in the half.
The Blue Devils were forced to punt on their next possession; however, a penalty for roughing the kicker kept the drive alive. Lewis had a carry and Brock Thompson completed a pass to Noah White to get the Blue Devils into Buffaloes territory before Juliun Lane intercepted the ball and returned it for a touchdown with 1 minute to play in the half. The Buffaloes went for 2, but failed. West Greene took a commanding 16-0 lead into the break.
“Brock hasn’t played like a freshman all year,” Rice said. “We had some miscommunication on a couple of those throws that weren’t his fault. In football and in life, there are growing pains. He is still 5-2 as a starting quarterback which is tremendous for anyone, much less a freshman. He is a special kid, he will bounce back in a big way. I have all the confidence in the world in him.”
Due to injuries, a few key players for UCHS could not play in the second half.
“Not having Owen Nicholson and Hunter Higgins in the second half was a huge blow for us,” Rice said. “Those guys don’t come off the field for us normally. Neither of the injuries were serious though, and we think we will be 100 percent healthy heading up to Johnson County for a huge game for our program, which is all you can ask for this time of year.”
Things weren’t looking good for the Blue Devils when the third quarter started. After forcing UCHS to punt on the first possession of the quarter, West Greene scored again for a 23-0 lead with 7 minutes to play in the quarter.
The Blue Devils could have given up, but they didn’t, and began their comeback on their next possession. Following runs by Lewis and a pass by Thompson to Troy Podvin, Thompson hit Brett Strother for a 59-yard touchdown. Martin Porras converted the point-after attempt and the Blue Devils trailed 23-7 with just under 5 minutes to play in the third.
The UCHS defense came alive in the third and fourth quarters – holding the Buffaloes scoreless the rest of the game. The Blue Devils got on the scoreboard again with just over 5 minutes to play when Thompson hit Podvin from 21 yards out for a touchdown. UCHS went for 2 and scored for a 23-15 score.
Porras pinned West Greene deep in Blue Devil territory on the ensuing kick off. The Blue Devils forced the Buffaloes into fourth-and-14 and got a sack, but a facemask penalty allowed West Greene to maintain possession. On the next play, however, Shane Armstrong and Matthew Hatcher got to the quarterback again and forced a fumble that Armstrong recovered.
“We had some kids give unbelievable efforts,” Rice said. “Shane Armstrong came back from a knee injury and played like he hadn’t missed a snap all year. He is a rock solid kid.”
The Blue Devils had the ball, and a chance to tie the game with 3 minutes to play, but an interception ended the drive.
The UCHS defense again held West Greene in check and the Blue Devils got the ball back at midfield with 1:22 to play. On first down, Thompson pitched the ball to Strother who took aim downfield at Bradley Edwards. Again, Lane came away with an interception to seal the victory for West Greene. The Buffaloes won the game, 23-15.
“We have taken care of the ball so well since the first couple games,” Rice said. “It was frustrating to hand the ball over to them repeatedly like we did.”
Despite the loss, Rice said he was proud of the way his team battled back.
“I definitely think that’s the silver lining,” he said. “We don’t believe in moral victories. However, we were down 23-0 and ended up having two different chances to tie the ballgame up in the fourth quarter. I think it shows the shift in culture that we have been looking for. These kids are beginning to believe they are going to win, regardless of what the score is. Now we have to eliminate the turnovers and penalties that put us in such a hole early, but we as a staff are extremely proud of the grit they showed.”
Thompson was 11-23 passing for 153 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Strother had 2 catches for 69 yards and a touchdown; he also rushed for 22 yards on 5 carries. Podvin had 4 catches for 41 yards and a touchdown. White had 3 catches for 31 yards. Lewis had 102 yards on 14 carries.
Michael Smith led the Blue Devil defense with 17 tackles. Hatcher, Armstrong and Drew Williams each recorded a sack in the game.
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The loss to West Greene puts a home playoff game in question, but not out of reach, for the Blue Devils.
“It hurts because that one could have locked up a winning season and the home playoff game,” Rice said. “However, all of our goals are still on the table, we just need a little bit of help now. We are already in the playoffs and cannot finish less than third regardless of how the last week goes. If we win at Johnson County, and Chuckey-Doak beats West Greene, we would still win the region and host a playoff game for the first time since 1991.”
The Blue Devils have a bye this week and won’t play again until Friday, Oct. 27, when they travel to Johnson County (8-0, 4-0) for a matchup with the Longhorns – the league’s only undefeated team.
“We strategically put the bye week here for this reason,” Rice said. “To have a week to rest and heal up a little bit is huge going into a game like this with a potential championship on the line. We are going to practice three days and continue to lift and get stronger in the weight room.”
The Blue Devils and Longhorns last played during the final week of the 2016 season when UCHS won 28-14 in Erwin.
“They are a great football team,” Rice said of the Longhorns. “They have 22 seniors and this is the team they have talked about for a long time up there. However, our guys are still very confident. Beating them last year at home, to get in the playoffs, was huge for the mentality of our guys because historically we have had a hard time beating them.
“We are going to have to have two great weeks of preparation and we are going to have to put together the most complete effort we have had all year to go up there and win. We are very excited about the opportunity though, and feel very blessed to be playing for a potential championship this late in the year. It’s a real testament to these young men.”