Blue Devil Matthew Sellars had his eyes set for the end zone after intercepting a pass during the Unicoi County High School football team’s loss to Hampton at Gentry Stadium. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

Almost 400 rushing yards drove the Hampton Bulldogs (1-1) to a 32-13 victory over the Unicoi County High School football team on Friday, Aug. 30, at Gentry Stadium.

“It was disappointing for sure,” Blue Devil head coach Drew Rice said of the loss. “We just couldn’t get off the field defensively. Our guys never quit though, and I am proud of them for that.”

The defeat dropped UCHS to 0-2 on the season.

“We just have to put this one behind us, and get back to work,” Rice said. “We start region play this week, so this game this week is a must-win.”

The game started off on a bright note for the Blue Devils as senior Kody Lewis raced away from the Bulldogs for a touchdown – and a 6-0 UCHS lead – on the first possession of the game.

After being kept out of the end zone and held mostly in check the previous week at South Greene, Rice and the Blue Devil offense created more opportunities for Lewis against Hampton – and he took advantage.

“We made it a priority to get him going,” Rice said of Lewis. “We still have to do a better job of getting him the ball, but yes, it was much better than the week before. He is a special talent. We are better when he is rolling; there’s no question about that.”

Hampton then tied the game on a 19-play, 65-yard drive doing what they do so well – run the football.

“That’s what they do,” Rice said. “They are a top 10 team in the state year in and year out, and to be successful you have to be able to consistently run the football. Our size on the line has really hurt us these first two games, but we have to own that and continue to improve.”

The UCHS defense forced a fourth down halfway through the drive, but could not get off the field.

“We had a play on each of their scoring drives in the first half that could have gotten us off the field,” Rice said. “When you watch the film and you see fourth and 3 and they convert it on a busted assignment, and then third and 12, and they complete a pass in double coverage for 13 yards – it’s tough to swallow.”

The Bulldogs stalled the next UCHS drive, then blocked a punt to get the ball back on the Blue Devils’ 33-yard line. On first down, junior Blue Devil defensive back intercepted a pass in the red zone and gave UCHS the ball back, but UCHS was forced to punt again.

Hampton found the end zone again on their next possession, going 70 yards on 10 plays. A successful two-point conversion put the Bulldogs up, 14-6. After forcing the Blue Devils to punt again, Hampton scored again, this time going 79 yards on 10 plays, with less than a minute to play before halftime.

In the second half, the teams traded turnovers before Hampton scored again and took a 26-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. In typical Blue Devil fashion, however, Rice’s team kept fighting to get the win.

On the ensuing kickoff, Lewis took the ball 91 yards for a touchdown that gave life to his team and the Blue Devil faithful at Gentry Stadium. The UCHS defense then held their ground against the Bulldogs and forced a punt.

“I think it says a lot about them,” Rice said of his team’s efforts late in the game. “I told them after the game I was extremely proud of how they kept fighting. It’s a compliment to them and shows how invested they are in what we are trying to do.”

The Blue Devils took possession around mid-field and put together one of their best drives of the night and marched into the red zone. Lewis found the end zone again, however, the score was called back on a substitution penalty. This stalled the drive – and any hopes of a comeback for the Blue Devils.

“It was huge,” Rice said of the penalty. “The officials never came and told us who had to come out, so we took out the player who we thought they called the timeout for, but turns out they both were supposed to come out. I’ve never seen that happen in all of my life being around football, but it’s nobody’s fault but mine. We scored there and that would have made it 20-26 with 6 minutes left and us with all the momentum, who knows what may have happened. We talk about how every single detail matters, and that’s a great example of that.”

Hampton scored on the final possession of the game for the final score of 32-13.

UCHS had 168 yards of total offense – 67 in the air and 101 on the ground. Hampton had 453 total yards – 55 passing and 398 rushing.

Lewis had 95 rushing yards and the 2 touchdowns. Quarterback Brock Thompson was 8-15 for 67 yards. Evan Huff had 12 yards on 1 carry. Tannery VanHoy had 35 yards on 2 catches. Peyton Whitson had 22 yards on 1 catch. L.J. Mitchell had 14 yards on 1 catch.

Lewis had 12 tackles to lead the UCHS defense. Lane Garland and Roby Lemmon each had 7 tackles. Mitchell had 6 and Robbie O’Dell had 4.

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The Blue Devils will play their first Region 1-AAA game when they travel to North Greene to face the Huskies on Friday, Sept. 6.

“We have to be ready,” Rice said. “They are 1-1, so they have won more football games than we have so far. We have to have a great week of practice this week and get things rolling.”

A victory on Friday is needed, according to Rice.

“It’s everything right now,” he said. “We are 0-2, and we certainly aren’t happy with that. But both the teams we have lost to are either ranked in the top 10 in the state, or receiving votes for the top 10. So we have to keep in mind that it’s a long season and all of our goals are still very much right in front of us. Accomplishing those goals begins this Friday night.”

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.