By Keeli Parkey
The Unicoi County High School football team overcame a sluggish start – and Mother Nature – to win its fourth game in as many weeks.
“It was ugly, but we will always take a win,” head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “I thought our guys showed some real guts in the second half. … Sullivan East is probably the best 0-5 team in the state of Tennessee. They have played some very close games that they were a play here and a play there away from winning. I am proud of how our guys got it figured out, though. That’s a game I am not sure we win in years past.”
Playing at Sullivan East (0-5) on Friday, Sept. 27, the Blue Devils (4-2, 2-0) found themselves down 8-0 to the Patriots with about 10 minutes to play in the second quarter.
“We were probably on track for a let down game,” Rice said of his team’s performance early in Friday’s game. “We had played so well for three straight weeks, and then East not being a region game, combined to make us not be as ready as we should have been.”
The Blue Devils began to put things together on their ensuing drive. Thanks to runs by Kody Lewis and Diego Diaz, and completed passes by Brock Thompson to Tracy Vanover and Tanner VanHoy, UCHS marched down to the 4-yard line. It then took two runs before Diaz punched the ball into the end zone.
“It’s always big to respond to a score with a score,” Rice said. “It was big to move it down the field and score like we did.”
Rice chose to send the extra-point team onto the field. Miquel Vasquez successfully completed the attempt for an 8-7 score with 5 minutes to play in the half.
Much of the momentum the Blue Devils gained thanks to the touchdown disappeared on the kickoff as Sullivan East’s Blake Scher raced with the ball down to the Blue Devils’ 23-yard line. A few plays later, the Patriots scored again and took a 15-7 lead with 2 minutes to play in the half.
UCHS then put together one of its most important drives of the game. Starting at their own 35-yard line, Thompson first hit Evan Huff for a 5-yard gain, then hit Peyton Whitson for a 25-yard gain, then he completed another pass to Vanover to bring the Blue Devil offense down to East’s 27-yard line. Lewis then ran for his first touchdown of the game. Vasquez again converted the extra point for a 15-14 score with less than one minute to play in the first half.
“The drive before the half was huge,” Rice said. “We went down the field methodically there. Brock did a great job running the two-minute drill. We didn’t even have to use a timeout on that drive. I was very proud of that. It would have been tough going into the lightning delay without a score there.”
With the teams about to return to the field after halftime, lightning was spotted in the area and officials called a lightning delay. During the unexpected break, Rice and his coaching staff kept the Blue Devils focused on the task at hand.
“I am not sure how big of a difference it made,” Rice said of the delay. “I was very proud of how we came out and played well right out of it though. There was no lull, and that’s something we preached the entire halftime. We just kept preaching to them to stay ready and they handled it all with a lot of maturity.”
When the game resumed, UCHS kept East out of the end zone during a six-minute drive. The Blue Devils began their first drive of the second half on their own 10-yard line. On first down, Lewis broke free for a 66-yard gain. Diaz then gained 12 yards on back-to-back carries before Lewis scored again. Following another successful extra point by Vasquez, UCHS took their first lead of the game, 22-15, with 4:28 to play in the third quarter.
The Blue Devil defense again held Sullivan East scoreless. UCHS began its next possession on their own 12-yard line. As he did on the previous possession, Lewis broke free on first down again – this time for 88 yards and his third touchdown of the game. Vasquez was good again for a 28-15 UCHS lead with just over a minute to play in the third.
“Kody was the best player on the field and he just made some big-time plays when we needed them,” Rice said. “Kody and Diego are running super tough for us right now. The one-two punch they give us is extremely tough for opposing teams to defend.”
Sullivan East would not go down without a fight and put themselves back in the game as the final quarter started thanks to a touchdown run by quarterback Dylan White seconds into the fourth quarter. Following the extra point, UCHS held a slim 28-22 lead.
“We probably scored too quick. Which you never want to turn down points, but scoring like that so quickly made our defense get right back on the field,” Rice said. “The longer the defense is on the field, especially against a good team, they are eventually going to have some breakdowns. It’s really tough.”
UCHS was kept out of the end zone on the next possession and East took over possession around midfield with less than seven minutes to play in the game. On third-and-7, White’s pass was tipped by Thompson and recovered by Roby Lemmon, giving UCHS the ball with 3 minutes to play.
“I thought the turnover we caused on the last drive was huge,” Rice said. “Brock made a tremendous break on the ball, tipped it, and Roby came down with it. We work on a tip drill every week in practice. Those two guys just refused to lose, and I am very proud of that.”
The Blue Devils ran down the clock and came away with a 28-22 victory. Rice said battling for the win at Sullivan East will be beneficial for his team.
“I think we needed a game like that,” he added. “All of our wins before that win had been running clocks. So to have to grind one out, against a bigger school, hopefully shows what we are made of.”
UCHS had 427 offensive yards – 56 passing and 371 rushing. East totaled 272 yards – 89 in the air and 183 on the ground.
Thompson completed 6-8 passes for 56 yards. Whitson had 1 catch for 25 yards. Vanover had 2 catches for 18 yards. VanHoy had 1 catch for 8 yards. Huff had 2 catches for 5 yards.
Lewis rushed 16 times for 273 yards and 3 touchdowns. Diaz had 17 carries for 85 yards and 1 touchdown. L.J. Mitchell had 1 carry for 6 yards.
Mitchell had 7 tackles. Thompson had 6. Lemmon had 6 tackles and an interception. Lewis, Lane Garland, Isaiah Smith and Bryson Peterson had 5 tackles each. VanHoy and Zhante Breedlove had 3 tackles each.
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The Blue Devils will return to Region 1-AAA play on Friday when they travel to Afton to face Chuckey-Doak (3-3, 2-0).
“They are a good football team,” Rice said of the Black Knights. “They beat Johnson County and almost beat South Green last Friday night. We will have to be ready to get this one. We need to have a great week of preparation and will have to go down there and fight it out.”
A win over Chuckey-Doak on Friday is vital to the Blue Devils’ hopes of a region crown, according to Rice.
“We are the only two undefeated teams left in our region, so this has huge implications for November,” he said. “We need as many fans as possible at Chuckey-Doak this Friday night to support these young men in a huge game.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.