By Trey Williams
It wasn’t nearly as easy as it’d appeared it would be for much of the night, but the Unicoi County football team exited Afton on Friday with its undefeated record intact.
Nehemiah Edwards rushed 20 times for 165 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which gave the Blue Devils a 20-0 lead in the third quarter, and they held on for a 20-12 defeat of Chuckey-Doak that moved them a win away from a Region 1-AAA title.
“For the first three quarters I thought we really played well,” head coach Drew Rice said Sunday afternoon. “Looking at the film, we played about as well as we could’ve asked as far as executing and doing what we’re supposed to do – and in a huge game.”
Edwards reached the end zone from 50 yards out late in the first quarter to open the scoring.
“They didn’t adjust when we motioned the H-back over,” Rice said. “So that was all she wrote on that one. It was a great job by (Edwards).
“I thought our offensive line played really well. Chuckey-Doak was huge up front. Moving guys that are that big can be a challenge, but our guys did a good job with it.”
The Blue Devils took a two-TD lead with 53 seconds left in the first half on a play that was sure to have left the Black Knights fit to be Tyed. Quarterback Bryson Peterson had to leave the game for a play due to his helmet coming off and backup Ty Engle entered cold for a third-and-18.
No problem. Engle promptly threw a 34-yard TD pass to Ty Johnson and Unicoi County went to intermission leading 13-0.
“Bryson’s helmet comes off and he’s gotta come out,” Rice said, “and to Ty Engle’s credit, I don’t even have to turn around and he’s there. Sometimes when somebody gets hurt you’ve gotta go find a kid and they’re on the other end of the sideline goofing off or whatever. He was just very locked in to the game.
“Coach (Mark) Peterson looked at me, because we had said we were gonna take a shot at some point just due to how they were playing us out there. We basically had that receiver singled up and Ty throws a good deep ball. So we just thought, ‘Well, they’re probably not gonna expect it right here, so let’s do this.’”
Rice wasn’t instantly on board, but it made sense a moment later.
“It was Coach Peterson’s idea,” he said. “And at first I thought, ‘Well, why in the world would we do that?’ And I got to thinking and said, ‘You know what, it’s probably the perfect time to do it.’
“Ty went in and threw a strike, our offensive line protected well and Ty Johnson made an awesome catch. It was a huge play right before the half, for sure. Ty was actually double-teamed and Ty Engle kind of put it on the sideline and he kind of dove for it in the corner of the end zone.”
It appeared the outcome was all but decided when the Devils drove 83 yards in 10 plays for Edwards’ 13-yard TD, which stretched the lead to 20 points in the third quarter. The drive included a 33-yard run on a reverse by Caleb Pelaez.
“We put that one in last week,” Rice said. “We’re just always trying to find ways to get him the ball because Caleb’s so dynamic with it in his hands. He does so much for us.”
The Black Knights didn’t wilt, however. They put together a scoring drive and got a huge break on the ensuing play when the Blue Devils botched a kick return and Chuckey-Doak took over on the 1-yard line. Before you knew it, the score was 20-12 with the majority of a quarter remaining. It was the second straight week a kick or punt return could’ve cost Unicoi a victory.
“We’ve gotta shore up the mental mistakes,” Rice said. “There weren’t a ton of ‘em, but there were a few at critical times – against East on a punt return and against Chuckey-Doak on a kick return. We actually just finished a 20-minute film deal here (on special teams). …
“But I guess the grit and the resolve that we’ve shown the last two weeks, you know, to just find a way to get it done has really been good to see, even though it’s been two nerve-racking games.”
Linebacker Isaiah Smith tallied a team-high 10 tackles for a defense that limited talented Brasen Murvin to 90 yards and held the Black Knights to 196 yards of total offense.
“Murvin’s tough,” Rice said. “He’s just a sophomore. He got banged up a little bit throughout the game, but he’s a really good running back.
“Isaiah played great. Our defense has really been the difference when you look at the season we’re having – that and our ability to run the ball. Our defense has been playing tough. Our box is really good – our defensive line and our linebackers. We’re blessed there.”
Edwards has 86 carries for 659 yards and 11 TDs in five games this season (two games were forfeits). Pelaez has 33 carries for 286 yards and two TDs. He also has 12 catches for 87 yards and a 44-yard interception return for a TD.
Smith and Garrett Gaddy are tied for the team lead with 44 tackles apiece. Ty Owen leads the Devils with 10 tackles for loss and Lucas Slagle has team highs in sacks (four) and forced fumbles (two).
Esteban Mendoza has punted 12 times for a 42.7-yard average
Unicoi will have a chance to clinch the region title when it hosts West Greene on Oct. 15.
Of course, the Blue Devils are also eyeing the program’s first 10-0 regular season. So Rice doesn’t anticipate them looking past Cloudland when it visits Erwin on Friday.
“It’s not a region game this week, but we’re looking down the barrel of a 10-0,” Rice said. “And you can’t do that unless you get the one that’s right in front of ya. We’re gonna have a challenge in Cloudland. I think it’s a big motivator for these guys to truly be a historic team – I guess the best team in school history record wise. It’s just a tremendous opportunity that I hope at no point do we take lightly.
“Cloudland’s tough. They’ve got a couple of kids that could play anywhere, including Elizabethton. So we’re gonna have a challenge there. But it’ll be good to get back home and have two home games here. Hopefully, we take care of business and we’ll be playing back here in November.”