By Keeli Parkey
For the second consecutive season, the Unicoi County High School football team (5-5, 4-3) has earned a spot in the playoffs. And, once again, they will face the football powerhouse that is the Alcoa Tornadoes (9-1, 5-0) in the first round of the Region 1-AAA postseason.
“Making the playoffs is something for these guys to really be proud of,” head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “They have overcome a whole lot. It just speaks to the character of these young men for them to do what they have done this season.”
The Blue Devils will go on the road on Friday, Nov. 4, to face the Tornadoes. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Alcoa defeated UCHS 38-7 in the opening round of the playoffs last season. The Tornadoes then went on to win four more games and the state championship in 2015. Rice said he knows his team has a tall challenge ahead of them.
“They are the best of the best,” Rice said of Alcoa. “They are unbelievably talented and extremely well coached. We just have to focus on our individual assignments and take it one play at a time.”
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The Blue Devils played their way into the postseason with a 28-14 victory over the Johnson County Longhorns (4-6, 3-4) on Friday, Oct. 28, at Gentry Stadium in Erwin.
“We said it was going to be a war, and it was,” Rice said. “I thought our guys really poured everything they had into getting that win. It speaks to what kind of young men they are. I am extremely proud of how hard they played.”
From the opening kickoff, the Blue Devils left little doubt that they came to play. The Longhorns received the ball to start the game and the UCHS defense jumped all over them, forcing a fourth-and-long.
On the ensuing possession, the Blue Devils needed only seven plays before Nick Fender scampered into the end zone from 15 yards out. Christian Leons’ extra point attempt found the uprights and UCHS took a 7-0 over their longtime rival with 5:35 to play in the opening quarter.
The Blue Devils defense gave up almost no ground to the Longhorns on Johnson County’s next drive, thanks, in part, to the first of Jacob Smith’s three sacks on the night.
“The defense did a fantastic job,” Rice said. “I would say that was our best defensive showing of the year, given the circumstances and what was on the line. Coach Hensley and Coach Sutton did a great job with the game plan, and the kids went out and executed. Jacob played like an all-region senior is supposed to. When he decides to, Jacob is capable of taking over a game like that. People have been running away from his side the last two years, but it was good to see him have that kind of game for senior night.”
UCHS needed only two plays to score again – this time on a 68-yard touchdown pass from Kendrick Williams to Michael Howell. Leon converted another extra point to give the Blue Devils a 14-0 lead with just under three minutes to play in the first quarter.
“Getting off to a fast start was huge,” Rice said. “Sometimes a fast start in a game like that can be enough to get you a win. I thought our guys came out motivated and focused. They knew what was at stake.”
The Blue Devil defense held the Longhorns in check on the next drive. On the ensuing UCHS possession, Williams again hit Howell for a touchdown – this time for 83 yards. Leon stayed perfect on point-after attempts and the Blue Devils held a commanding 21-0 lead with 9:25 to play in the first half.
The Johnson County offense finally got going on their next drive, going 67 yards and reaching the end zone on the legs of Gage Hampton (#19). Shane Greer converted the extra point and the Longhorns had life, trailing 21-7, with just under six minutes to play in the half.
Both teams were held scoreless for the rest of the half and throughout the third quarter. The Blue Devils broke the scoreless drought early in the fourth quarter. Thanks to Smith’s fumble recovery with less than four minutes to play in the third quarter, the Blue Devils took possession near midfield.
UCHS found itself with a first-and-10 at the Longhorns’ 31-yard line after Dylon Burgess and Michael Smith carried the ball. A personal foul and unsportsmanlike penalty backed the Blue Devils up 30 yards for second-and-40. Williams then hit Dylan Lewis for a gain and a personal foul against Johnson County gave the Blue Devils first down at the 25-yard line as the third quarter ended.
A few plays later, Fender rushed from a yard out for his second touchdown of the game. Leon connected on another extra point and UCHS led 28-7 with just under nine minutes to play in the game. Bouncing back from the second-and-40 was a momentum builder for the Blue Devils, according to Rice.
“It was huge,” he said of the drive. “We made some big plays and the offensive line really started clicking. Drives like that are demoralizing for a defense, and our guys found a way to get it done.”
The Longhorns had a solid drive going on their next possession, getting into UCHS territory before Bradley Edwards made a one-handed interception grab to give the Blue Devils the ball back.
“Bradley is a great success story and he’s had a great junior year,” Rice said. “He is a kid that just has a nose for the football. He seems to always find a way to be in the right place at the right time. It was a huge play in a big time game.”
Johnson County scored again, on a 1-yard rush by Hampton with around four minutes to play, but never really threatened to get back in game.
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The Blue Devil offense posted 401 total yards against Johnson County.
Williams was 7-14 passing with 222 yards and 2 touchdowns. He surpassed the 2,000 yard mark during the game and has passed for a total of 2,023 yards this season.
“Kendrick has been what makes us go,” Rice said.” That is a great accomplishment for a high school quarterback to throw for over 2,000 yards in one season. He has been the driving force behind our success.”
Howell had 4 catches for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns. Lewis had 3 catches for 54 yards.
Fender rushed 28 times for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns. Burgess had 4 carries for 28 yards. Kody Lewis had 4 carries for 7 yards.
Leon was 4-4 on extra point attempts.
D. Lewis had 9 tackles, 5 assists and 1 sack. His brother, Kody, had 8 tackles, 2 assists and 1 sack. Howell had 6 tackles and 2 assists. Smith had 4 tackles, 3 assists and 3 sacks.