By Keeli Parkey
The first game of the 2017 season did not go the way head coach Drew Rice and his Unicoi County High School football team had hoped.
Despite playing a solid first half, the Blue Devils found themselves on the losing end of the game played at South Greene High School on Friday, Aug. 18, due to mistakes at crucial points in the game.
“I thought we did some good things early, but I think we were all very disappointed in the final product,” Rice told The Erwin Record. “The reality is you cannot win football games turning the ball over five times. We have to fix that aspect of our game moving forward.”
The Rebels started the first drive of the game at the UCHS 48-yard line. The home team needed only a handful of plays before quarterback Levi Myers hit Grayson Burns on a 4-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was successfully converted to give the Rebels a 7-0 lead.
The Blue Devils wouldn’t allow the Rebels to take control of the game, however. UCHS needed only four plays for quarterback Brett Strother to hit Owen Nicholson on a 46-yard touchdown pass. The point-after attempt by Martin Porras was good and the game was tied, 7-7.
“We executed much better early in the game,” Rice said. “I think as the game went on, fatigue set in a little bit and our focus was not as sharp and it certainly showed by the product we put on the field. Our defense caused four fumbles in the first half and we were unable to recover any of them. That is something we have to capitalize on. In a game like that you cannot let opportunities like that slip through the cracks.”
The teams traded possession several times before the Blue Devils orchestrated another scoring drive with just under four minutes to play in the first half. Strother completed passes to Austin O’Dell and Bradley Edwards as UCHS marched down the field. For the second time in the game, Strother found Nicholson again – this time for a 36-yard touchdown. The point-after attempt failed and the Blue Devils held a 13-7 lead with just under three minutes to play in the half.
What momentum UCHS had thanks to that touchdown quickly faded as the Rebels scored again to take a 14-13 lead with less than one minute to play in the half.
“Their second touchdown took the air out of us for sure,” Rice said. “We were up 13-7 with less than five minutes in the half with the ball, with great field position. We simply cannot turn the ball over. It changed the entire complexion of the game.”
South Greene took control of the contest in the third quarter, scoring two touchdowns – one on a 42-yard pass from Myers to Burns and the other on a 5-yard run by Derick Howlett. The Rebels led 27-13 at the end of the third quarter.
Turnovers kept the Blue Devils from staging a comeback in the second half. The Rebels scored their final touchdown in the fourth quarter to win the game, 34-13.
While disappointed in the loss, Rice said he thinks his team learned some valuable lessons.
“We have to bounce back; there are no other options for us right now,” he added. “Our guys have bought in. They realize that it’s a long season and one game is not going to define our season. I think they learned just how vital it is to take care of the football. We were certainly on the wrong end of the turnover battle Friday night and that is something we have to make a focal point moving forward.”
The Rebels rushed for 148 yards in the game, while holding the Blue Devils to 81 as UCHS was unable to control the line of scrimmage during some stretches of the contest.
“We had some miscommunication in crucial times Friday night,” Rice said. “I think that played a big hand in it. That is a very tough place to play – the crowd is right on top of you and communication becomes tough. We are making an emphasis in practice this week on all of our lineman communicating in the huddle pre-snap and assuring we are all on the same page.”
South Greene had 352 yards of total offense while UCHS had 236.
Strother threw for 155 yards and rushed for 36 in the loss. Nicholson had 6 catches for 121 yards. Troy Podvin had 2 catches for 17 yards. O’Dell had 1 catch for 15 yards. Shane Armstrong had 9 carries for 26 yards. Kody Lewis had 3 carries for 17 yards.
Lewis also had 8 tackles. Nicholson and Matthew Hatcher had 4 tackles each. Tanner VanHoy and Noah White had 3 tackles each.
The Blue Devils will play their home opener on Friday, Aug. 25, at Gentry Stadium against Sullivan East. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
“We expect East to be a well-coached team with some good athletes,” Rice said. “They are a 4A school and we are going to have to play our best football to come out on top.”
Rice said he thinks the Blue Devils will be ready for the challenge.
“We, as a staff and these kids, know we are a better football team than what we showed Friday night,” he added. “We plan to have a great week of preparation and correct our mistakes this Friday night when we open up at home. Our guys are excited about their first one of 2017 at Gentry Stadium.”