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Devils get past visiting Roadrunners with 25-16 victory in opening round of state play

Erwin Record Photo by Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image • Nehemiah Edwards (No. 34) helped propel the Blue Devils to a win in the opening game of state competition on Friday, Nov. 5.

By Trey Williams

Sports Writer

Unicoi County football coach Drew Rice needn’t apologize for a playoff victory, certainly not Region 1-3A’s first since the Blue Devils beat Kingston in the first round in 2018. But he’ll quickly tell you that Friday’s 25-16 first-round defeat of Austin-East wasn’t exactly a pigskin Picasso.

Nehemiah Edwards rushed for 102 yards and scored four touchdowns and the Unicoi County defense forced seven turnovers.

Collectively, however, the Blue Devils (10-1) finished with less than 100 yards total offense and were outgained approximately three to one.

“It was a weird win,” Rice said. “I don’t really know how to explain it. I mean it was awesome. I’m proud of our guys and we’ll certainly take it. But it was kind of strange how the whole game went. It was crazy. It’s never pretty in November, I guess.”

The Roadrunners finished the season 2-8, but Rice didn’t hesitate while saying they had the best collection of personnel his team has played thus far.

“Oh, definitely,” Rice said.

Junior 5-foot-10, 215-pound running back Markeyis Billingsley was the bell cow.

“The running back — the Billingsley kid — is a load,” Rice said. “I don’t know if he was a hundred percent or not, but golly, he runs tough. They had athletes all over the place. I’m really, really proud of our guys. To beat a Knoxville team in the playoffs like that – it’s really something to be proud of for ‘em. …

“The defense has really been tough going back to the West Greene game. The guys have done a good job of winning the line of scrimmage.”

Edwards also tied for the team high in sacks from his linebacker position despite missing half the snaps on defense to help limit cramping.

“He didn’t miss much offense,” Rice said, “but for him to have eight tackles – I’d say he probably played 60 percent of the defensive snaps. So that’s a testament to him.”

Another junior linebacker who was invaluable on both sides of the ball was 6-foot-2, 208-pound Logan Groom.

“He plays outside linebacker and he’s our H-back that we move around everywhere,” Rice said. “Probably close to every one of Nemo’s touchdowns has been behind him. That doesn’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet.

“He doesn’t come off the field except for a couple of offensive formations. He’s just been rock-solid with whatever we ask him to do. He’s another one we’re excited about having back next year.”

Junior Brody Rasnick matched Edwards’ team high with eight tackles and made an interception.

“He played well, got that interception,” Rice said. “When Brody wants to play he can be really good. And he plays both ways for us.

“He can be real disruptive. He’s really grown the last two years and knowing we’re gonna have him back next year is really exciting.”

Turnovers were part of the total yardage disparity on offense.

“We caused seven turnovers,” Rice said. “So we were constantly having short fields, and luckily, we were able to capitalize. But the other side of that is there’s no telling how many yards we had in negative plays – and a lot of that’s a credit to them. We had some sacks and some big negative runs.

“We either had a big play or a negative play. It was weird how it kind of shook out.”

Two negative plays – for some 25 yards combined – swung the momentum after it appeared Unicoi was going to take a 20-0 lead late in the second quarter. A reverse lost about 15 yards and a sack followed on the ensuing play.

“We had it inside the 10 and I made a terrible call, which got us backed up,” Rice said. “Going into halftime they had the momentum. But we settled in at halftime and found a way to come back out and establish the line of scrimmage again and gutted one out.”

Esteban Mendoza repeatedly gave the Roadrunners poor field position by averaging 56.7 yards on four punts.

“I think they were losing ‘em up in the lights,” Rice said. “He flipped the field so many times for us. Huge credit to him. He’s such a weapon.

“And credit to our whole punt team. I mean they were coming after him. We had that three-man shield in front of him there and they did great. Caleb Swinehart (long snapper) deserves a ton of credit for all that Esteban does. He’s been great there.”

Scott Meadows-coached Pigeon Forge should present a challenge when it visits Erwin on Friday.

“They’re super well-coached,” Rice said. “Coach Meadows has won a state championship. So that should go without saying. They do what they do and have a lot of success with it —kind of the shotgun Wing T.”

The Tigers (8-2) defeated West Greene, 21-20, in the first round. Unicoi County beat West Greene, 28-10.

Austin-East is another common opponent. Pigeon Forge defeated the Roadrunners, 24-14.

Rice had no trouble getting his team to take Austin-East seriously and doesn’t anticipate a letdown for the Tigers.

“I think they realized looking at Austin-East beating Northview Academy a lot worse than we did, even though it was different points in the year, I think that really got their attention,” Rice said. “They’re a good football team. I don’t care what their record is; we just beat a good football team. Our guys had the confidence to go out and get it done.”