By Keeli Parkey
For a quarter, the Unicoi County High School football team was in complete control of the game at Pigeon Forge on Friday, Oct. 7. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils (3-4, 2-2), everything began to unravel after those first 12 minutes, as they fell, 35-14, to the Tigers.
“I think we were all disappointed in the way the game turned out Friday,” head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “I was proud of the way our guys fought and never quit, but we really shot ourselves in the foot multiple times and it caught up with us.
“I think our guys showed up and were ready to play in the first quarter and parts of the second, but we did not continue to play at a high level in the second half. We have to get to where we are playing for four complete quarters, that’s what separates good teams from great teams.”
The Blue Devils kicked off to the Tigers to start the game and made their presence known on the field when Michael Howell intercepted a pass on third down to give UCHS the ball. On the ensuing possession, Nick Fender carried the ball several times for UCHS which set up a 21-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Kendrick Williams to Howell. Kicker Christian Leon converted on the extra point attempt and the Blue Devils took a 7-0 lead with 6:47 to play in the first quarter.
Howell again made a big play for the Blue Devils, grabbing his second interception of the game on a fourth-and-five down for the Tigers. Penalties against UCHS put the ball deep into their own territory to start this drive.
Fender carried the ball again to gain yards for UCHS before an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Tigers move the ball out to their 30-yard line. With the Blue Devils facing third-and-nine, Pigeon Forge was flagged for another penalty that kept the UCHS drive alive.
Williams then found Shaddon Peavyhouse for an 11-yard gain, and runs by Fender and Brett Strother moved the Blue Devils down to the Pigeon Forge 25-yard line. Williams then found Peavyhouse in the end zone for the second touchdown of the game. Leon’s extra point was good and UCHS took a commanding 14-0 lead just before the end of the first quarter.
This was the last time the Blue Devils made it to the end zone Friday night.
Just as they would do the rest of the game, the Tigers began chipping away at the Blue Devil defense, gaining more and more yards on the ground until they found the end zone for the first time near the 6-minute mark of the second quarter.
Still holding a 14-7 lead, the Blue Devils appeared ready to march down the field to score again; however, on the ensuing kickoff a UCHS fumble was recovered by Pigeon Forge at the UCHS 29-yard line. The Tigers then only needed three plays to tie the game with 4:34 to play in the half.
Blue Devil Kody Lewis carried the next Tiger kickoff for 35 yards, giving UCHS good field position to start this drive. Fender then ran for seven yards and a face-mask penalty against the Tigers gave the Blue Devils first-and-10 at the Pigeon Forge 43-yard line.
Williams then completed a pass to Peavyhouse for a 9-yard gain and one to Howell for three yards.
With the ball on the 31-yard line, Fender gained four yards. Williams looked downfield for Howell on third down, but the quarterback and receiver barely missed a TD as Williams’ pass just slipped through Howell’s outstretched hands in the end zone.
Facing a fourth-and-six, Williams’ next pass was intercepted and the Tigers took over possession of the ball.
The Blue Devil defense held its own on this drive and the teams went into the halftime break tied, 14-14. The second half would belong to Pigeon Forge.
“I have to give Coach Meadows at Pigeon Forge and his staff a lot of credit, Rice said. “They made some adjustments and really took away what we were having success with early. My hat goes off to them, they have a very good football team, I think they will make their way into the playoffs. I also think that when we got up 14-0, that we let our foot off the gas and never really got it going again. It wasn’t an effort issue, our guys battled.”
On the second half kickoff, the Tigers went for an onside kick. This proved to be the right decision as the team recovered the kick at the UCHS 36-yard line. The play was “devastating,” according to Rice.
“The onside kick coming out of the half was just devastating,” he said. “We were excited about getting the ball to start the third and having the opportunity to go down and take the lead. I have watched that play about 25 times on film now, and have come to the conclusion that it was really just a perfect kick by their kicker, and we didn’t get on it. You see it happen on every level of football, but I really think that was the play that really turned the entire game.”
The Tigers then needed only five plays, including a 24-yard touchdown run, to take their first lead of the game, 21-14.
Also during the second half, the Blue Devils had almost no success stopping the Tigers’ running game as Pigeon Forge gained 338 rushing yards against UCHS.
“Our run defense has certainly not been where we want it to be,” Rice said. “I have to give Pigeon Forge’s offensive line a lot of credit though, they had some really big kids and they were creating lanes for their backs to get in and we couldn’t do a lot about it. It’s very frustrating to be in that situation, extremely frustrating.”
Throughout the 2016 season, opponents have had success running the ball against UCHS. According to stats from the Blue Devil coaching staff, through seven games, opponents are averaging almost 225 yards on the ground against the Blue Devils. In comparison, teams are only averaging approximately 79 yards of offense through the air this season.
“We are going to look at running some different defensive fronts this week, that will hopefully help us stop the run better,” Rice said. “We just have to do our individual jobs. We preach to our guys every day to do their job on each play, and trust that the guy beside of them will do theirs as well. It only takes one guy not doing his job, and the integrity of the entire defense can be compromised.”
In contrast, the majority of the Blue Devils’ offense this season has come in the air. UCHS has averaged approximately 195 passing yards per game, compared to only an average of approximately 79 yards rushing per game through their first seven games.
Following the Tigers’ touchdown, the Blue Devils were forced to punt on fourth-and-five. Taking over at their own 32-yard line, Tiger quarterback Dawson Day broke away from the line of scrimmage for a 68-yard touchdown run. Pigeon Forge now held a 28-14 lead with seven minutes to play in the third quarter. Things didn’t improve for the Blue Devils the rest of the way as they never really threatened to mount a comeback following Day’s touchdown.
Pigeon Forge scored for the final time, on a 4-yard run by Colby Manis, with seven minutes to play in the game. The Tigers, who were 1-5 going into this game, defeated UCHS, 35-14.
Rice said he expects his team to bounce back from the loss.
“There’s no need in dwelling on a loss, or a win for that matter,” he added. “I hope we learned that no lead is ever safe, and it’s important to finish games, not halves. I was very pleased with the way our guys showed up and went to work on Monday at practice. They believe that we can still have a great rest of the season, and I commend them for their willingness to work.”
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Williams went 14-22 for 136 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Pigeon Forge; he also rushed twice for three yards.
Strother was 1-1 passing for two yards and he carried the ball five times for 27 yards. Fender carried the ball 14 times for 52 yards and had three receptions for 11 yards.
Peavyhouse had three receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown. Dylan Lewis had three catches for 41 yards. Howell had four receptions for 36 yards and a touchdown. Laban Peterson had one catch for four yards.
Leon was 2-2 on extra point attempts.
The Blue Devils had 138 passing yards and 82 rushing yards Friday night on 53 plays. UCHS converted six of their 10 third down attempts. Eight penalties cost the team 85 yards.
Michael Smith led the UCHS defense with 11 tackles and six assists. Dylon Burgess had 10 tackles and four assists. Lewis had nine tackles and six assists. Jacob Smith had four tackles, three assists and a sack. Bradley Edwards had four tackles. Brett Lemmon, Owen Nicholson and Justin Laughren had three tackles each.
Howell had two interceptions in the game.
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According to stats from the UCHS football program, the Blue Devils have posted 1,912 offensive yards through their first seven games – of these 1,361 have come through the air and 551 have come on the ground. Their opponents have compiled 2,124 yards – 550 in the air and 1,574 on the ground. UCHS has scored 13 touchdowns through the air and six on the ground; their opponents have scored six touchdowns through the air and 21 on the ground.
Through seven games, Williams has completed almost 61 percent of his passes. Fender leads the Blue Devils in rushing with 302 total yards and four touchdowns. Kody Lewis has rushed for 103 yards and Strother has rushed for 91.
Peavyhouse, D. Lewis and Howell lead the Blue Devil receiving corps through seven games. They have gained 380, 377 and 302 yards, respectively. Peavyhouse and Howell have caught four touchdowns each, while D. Lewis has caught two. Stother has also caught two touchdowns this season.
D. Lewis is leading the UCHS defense with 87 tackles and three interceptions. Michael Smith has 66 tackles. Strother has 46; Edwards has 45; J. Smith has 44 and leads the team with four sacks; Tyler Whitson has 41; and Nicholson has 40. Laughren leads the Blue Devils with eight tackles-for-losses.
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The Blue Devils will look to return to form on Friday, Oct. 14, when they travel to Claiborne County. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
“They are a much improved team from last year,” Rice said. “They have given some people a lot of trouble with what they do offensively. We are going to have to really go to work this week and prepare to make the road trip to Tazewell and be successful.”