By Keeli Parkey
It wasn’t easy or pretty, but it was a win and the Blue Devils will take it.
The Unicoi County High School football team (4-4, 3-2) left Claiborne County with a 35-22 win over the Claiborne Bulldogs (2-6, 0-5) on Friday, Oct. 14.
“I thought our guys really battled,” head coach Drew Rice said. “We had some things that didn’t necessarily go our way, but we found a way to win and that says a lot about these kids.”
Looking to bounce back from a tough loss to Pigeon Forge the previous week, the Blue Devils got off to an uncharacteristically slow offensive start. But, as the first quarter wound down, the Blue Devils put together their first scoring drive of the game.
After the UCHS defense forced the Bulldogs into a turnover on downs, the Blue Devil offense took over on Claiborne’s 35-yard line. On first down, senior Nick Fender, who was a workhorse on the ground for UCHS all night, broke away from the pack for a 35-yard touchdown run. Christian Leon converted the extra point and UCHS took a 7-0 lead.
The Bulldogs put a stop to any momentum Fender’s touchdown gave the Blue Devils as they put together a 7-play drive that carried over into the second quarter to score Claiborne’s first touchdown of the game. The 2-point conversion failed and UCHS held a 7-6 lead with 10 minutes to play in the first half.
The Blue Devils took the momentum back on their next possession. Facing second-and-10, UCHS quarterback Kendrick Williams found Michael Howell for a 41-yard gain down to Claiborne’s 30-yard line. Fender then had 15-yard and 11-yard carries and an offsides penalty against the Bulldogs set up a quarterback sneak by Williams from 2-yards out. Leon’s extra point attempt was good again and UCHS took a 14-6 lead.
The Bulldogs responded with a touchdown and 2-point conversion to tie the game, 14-14, with just over two minutes to play in the half. The touchdown came after a 13-play drive during which Claiborne converted four third down attempts. This would be a trend throughout the game.
“They kept the ball out of our hands, which I think was a big part of their game plan,” Rice said of Claiborne. “They had 89 offensive snaps and we only had 35. That stat really is a compliment to our offense to still outscore them by two scores with such a discrepancy in offensive snaps.”
Not to be outdone, Williams and the Blue Devil offense took only one play to score their next touchdown. Starting on their own 37-yard line, Williams hit Dylan Lewis for a 63-yard touchdown pass and Leon hit another extra point to give UCHS a 21-14 lead with 1:53 to play in the half.
The Blue Devil defense then held the Bulldogs on the last drive of the half to take the lead into the break.
The Blue Devil defense dominated Claiborne on the first drive of the second half. Facing a fourth-and-two, the Bulldogs went for the first down deep in their own territory, but failed. Thanks to the 9-yard loss forced by the defense, the Blue Devils took over from the 11-yard line. Claiborne then stood strong, forcing the Blue Devils to attempt a 24-yard field goal. The attempt failed and the Bulldogs took over at their 20-yard line.
This drive ended thanks to Blue Devil Dylon Burgess’ interception to give UCHS possession; however, the Blue Devils couldn’t capitalize on the play and turned the ball over on downs.
As the clock ticked away in the third quarter, the Bulldogs began another 13-play drive during which they converted two fourth downs and ran down the clock to the 7:27-mark before scoring a touchdown and converting a 2-point conversion to take their first lead of the game, 22-21.
“They just did what they do,” Rice said of the Bulldogs’ scoring drive, “and that’s try to get three or four yards each down. I think our guys got wore down a little bit and they had some kids who made some plays.”
The Blue Devils’ ensuing drive looked bleak to begin with. Facing a third-and-10, Williams found Lewis on a 13-yard pass. Fender then rushed for six yards before Williams found Lewis again, this time for 27 yards, to get UCHS down to Claiborne’s 18-yard line.
Fender then rushed for seven yards. On second down, a holding penalty gave the Blue Devils second-and-13. Fender then rushed for his second touchdown of the game to put UCHS in the lead for good. Leon was good on another extra point for a 28-22 Blue Devil lead with five minutes to play.
Rice said his team was ready to respond after Claiborne took the lead.
“We just had guys who believed we were going to win that game and were not going to accept anything less,” he added. “They knew what we had to do and they went out and did it. Coach Foreman made some great play calls on that drive and Kendrick made some huge throws. We had some receivers make some big time catches.
“Our line really paved the way once we crossed the 50. Nick is the type of back if you will just give him a little room to work, he can do the rest. I couldn’t have been prouder of the resolve we showed as a team on that drive.”
Owen Nicholson helped UCHS seal the victory with an interception on Claiborne’s next possession. The Bulldogs were facing fourth-and-19 thanks, in part, to Jacob Smith’s sack, when Nicholson grabbed the interception. He carried the ball into the end zone, but the score was wiped off on a block-in-the-back penalty against the Blue Devils.
Taking possession with 1:52 to play, the Blue Devils protected possession of the ball before Fender rushed from 27 yards out for his third touchdown of the game. Leon converted his fifth extra point attempt and the Blue Devils sealed the 35-22 victory with less than one minute to play.
“Nick is a special kid,” Rice said. “I always feel confident when the ball is in his hands. I got on the offensive line pretty hard after the Pigeon Forge game, and they really responded Friday night. That’s the best blocking we have had all year, I have to commend those guys up front. “Kendrick has just been excellent. He is knocking on the door of 2,000 passing yards on the season, which in high school football is almost unheard of.
“Dylon Burgess also really stood out to me Friday night. He had double digit tackles, again, and was in on eight other assisted tackles. He’s been lights out since he came back from his elbow injury.”
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Williams finished the game going 10-12 passing with 1 touchdown. He also rushed for 2 yards and 1 touchdown.
Fender carried the ball 16 times for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
Lewis had 5 catches for 104 yards and 1 touchdown. Howell had 3 catches for 67 yards. Shaddon Peavyhouse had 2 receptions for 8 yards.
The Blue Devils had 331 yards of total offense – 179 passing and 152 rushing.
Bradley Edwards led the UCHS defense with 13 tackles and 15 assists. Lewis had 11 tackles (2 for losses), 1 sack and 5 assists. Burgess had 11 tackles (1 for a loss), 8 assists, 1 interception and 1 sack. Michael Smith had 7 tackles (1 for a loss) and 4 assists. Jacob Smith had 5 tackles, 8 assists (2 for losses) and 1 sack. Nicholson had 4 tackles and 4 assists to go along with his interception.
Claiborne had 311 yards of total offense – 123 through the air and 188 on the ground. Rice said he felt his defense, particularly against the rush, has improved.
“I thought we did a better job of stopping the run,” Rice said. “(Claiborne) broke loose for a couple big plays on us, but they have done that against everyone. They are a much improved team from last year. Coach Medlin is doing a very good job there.”
Up next for the Blue Devils is league opponent Northview Academy (5-3, 4-1). The teams will face off at Gentry Stadium in Erwin on Friday, Oct. 21, at 7:30 p.m. Northview’s four league wins this season have come over Chuckey-Doak, Claiborne, Pigeon Forge and West Greene. They were defeated by Johnson County (4-4, 3-2) last week.
“Northview is a very good football team,” Rice said. “They have some kids playing for them now that five years ago would have been starting at Sevier County. So they have high quality talent. They are well coached and have a quarterback who is very hard to tackle. We expect them to give us a very strong effort Friday night and we are going to have to match it.”
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As the 2016 regular season nears its end, the teams of the Division I Class AAA Region 1 are looking ahead to their playoff picture. The victory over Claiborne kept the Blue Devils’ playoff hopes alive.
According to Rice, the Blue Devils have to defeat either Northview on Friday or Johnson County next week to qualify for the playoffs.
“There’s a scenario if we can win both, and some people around the league beat each other, we could potentially host a playoff game as the number 2 seed,” he added.
Elizabethton is in control of the league. The Cyclones are 7-1 this season, including a 5-0 record in the region. Northview Academy sits in second place in the league with a 5-3 overall record and 4-1 league record.
The Blue Devils, Pigeon Forge and Johnson County all have 3-2 league records going into the Oct. 21 games.
Chuckey-Doak and West Greene each have 1-4 league records, while Claiborne sits at 0-5.
The top four teams from Region 1 will advance to face the top four teams from Region 2, with the number one team from each league facing the other’s four seed. The two and three seeds from each league with face one another.
As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline, Alcoa and Christian Academy of Knoxville sit atop the Region 2 standings with records of 4-0. McMinn Central and Scott County round out the top four spots with records of 2-2.