By Keeli Parkey
In a game that came down to the final minutes, the Unicoi County High School football team couldn’t make things happen when they needed to most.
The Blue Devils dropped to 0-2 on the season with a 28-21 loss to Sullivan East at Gentry Stadium in Erwin on Friday, Aug. 25.
“We have to learn to do what it takes to win in games like that,” head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “We were a play or two away from that game being a win for us. It’s extremely frustrating. We feel like we are doing some good things, but we have to eliminate the turnovers and penalties that are crippling us.”
Both the Patriots and the Blue Devils got off to slow starts offensively on Friday. The first score of the game went to the Blue Devils when junior quarterback Brett Strother broke free on a 67-yard run for a touchdown. Martin Porras converted the point-after attempt and the home-standing Blue Devils held a 7-0 lead with just over 2 minutes to play in the first quarter.
The Blue Devil defense forced East to punt after four plays and took over at East’s 28-yard line, following senior Owen Nicholson’s 39-yard punt return.
UCHS tried to get into the end zone once again, but East’s defense kept the Devils out and took over on downs at their own 21-yard line. The Patriots then put together a 10-plus play drive, thanks in part to the Devils’ inability to stop the run, that culminated in a touchdown. East’s extra point attempt was blocked by Blue Devil senior Hunter Higgins.
With just over 5 minutes to play in the half, the Blue Devils held a 7-6 lead.
Nicholson then took the ensuing kickoff all the way back for an 87-yard touchdown score. Porras again converted the extra point and the Blue Devils held a 14-6 lead with less than 5 minutes to play in the half.
On East’s ensuing drive, senior Blue Devil cornerback Bradley Edwards grabbed his first of two interceptions in the game to give UCHS possession near the 50-yard line.
“Bradley is just a football player,” Rice said. “I would like to have 10 more just like him. He is a gritty kid that just finds himself in front of the football. He plays the game the way it is supposed to be played.”
The Patriot defense immediately responded with an interception of their own to retake possession of the ball on the UCHS 40-yard line. Unfortunately, the UCHS defense couldn’t keep the Patriots out of the end zone before the horn sounded the end of the second quarter as East needed only four plays to punch the ball into the end zone. The Patriots went for and converted a 2-point attempt to tie the game, 14-14, with 1 minute to play in the half.
The Blue Devils were able to snatch away any momentum East’s touchdown gave the Patriots thanks to sophomore Kody Lewis’ 90-yard kickoff return. Porras remained perfect for the game on point-after attempts and UCHS went into the locker room with a 21-14 lead.
“Our special teams have definitely been a bright spot for us,” Rice said. “We spend a lot of time during the week working on our special teams. Coach (Brandon) Adams, our special teams coordinator, has done a phenomenal job with these young men. Both Owen and Kody’s returns were huge plays for us. The effort they are giving on special teams right now is exactly what we are looking for.”
East received the opening kickoff of the second half and orchestrated an 11-play 70-plus yard drive to tie the game. The Blue Devil defense put up a fight, especially after the Patriots got within 20 yards of the end zone. With East facing fourth-and-5, senior Michael Smith sacked Patriot quarterback Dylan White; however, a controversial horsecollar call went against the Blue Devils and kept East’s drive alive. Patriot Gavin LaPrade then trotted into the end zone from 6 yards out; the point-after attempt was good and the game was tied, 21-21, with 7 minutes to play in the third quarter.
“That touchdown gave (East) some momentum that carried through the second half,” Rice said. “Plays like that on Michael are tough, because he makes a huge stop and gives a great effort. I think that’s one of those 50/50 calls and sometimes they aren’t going to go your way.”
The possession again showed the Blue Devil defense’s difficulty stopping East’s running game.
“We had some alignment issues, but more than anything we got wore down,” Rice said. “Our defense was on the field for almost twice as many plays as our offense. We have to move the chains offensively and keep our defense from getting in situations like that.”
Despite getting inside the 20-yard line twice in the final minutes of the third quarter, the Blue Devils couldn’t find their way into the end zone. The teams went into the fourth quarter tied at 21.
The Blue Devils took a fourth quarter possession on their own 23-yard line. East forced a punt after backing UCHS up several yards. The snap for the punt went over junior Shane Armstrong’s head and into the end zone. Armstrong barely managed to get the kick off, but the Patriots were still able to take possession of the ball on the UCHS 9-yard line with around 9 minutes to play in the game.
“Shane made an incredible play to get the ball out of the end zone,” Rice said.
The Blue Devil defense came together and really battled with their backs to the wall. On first down, senior outside linebacker Noah White made a great play to tackle LaPrade for a loss. On second down, a host of Blue Devils stopped a run at the line of scrimmage and on third down several UCHS defenders brought down East’s quarterback for a loss. The Patriots went for a field goal on fourth down, but it was blocked by the Blue Devils and the score remained tied at 21 with just under 8 minutes to play.
“It didn’t seem like it at the time, but when our defense kept them out of the endzone after that it was huge,” Rice said. “That’s the thing, we are showing glimpses of being the kind of team we want to be. We just have to put it all together for four quarters.”
The Blue Devils were unable to threaten on their next offensive possession and were forced to punt. The Patriots took over on their own 29-yard line with 5:30 on the clock. UCHS forced a third-down-and-6, but a roughing the passer penalty gave East a first down and kept the drive alive. The Blue Devil defense again forced a third down, but the Patriots were able to gain the necessary yards on the ground to advance the ball to the UCHS 35-yard line with less than 3 minutes to play.
Once again, the Blue Devil defense backed the Patriots up; this time, forcing a third-and-15. A bad snap was barely recovered by White who raced to his right under pressure from Blue Devil Austin O’Dell. Just as O’Dell was about to tackle him, White let the ball fly and it found its way into the hands of Ethan Whitley for the game-winning touchdown with 18 seconds to play.
“That was gut wrenching,” Rice said. “On film, you see the snap go high and all our guys freeze because they are anticipating a fumble and then (East players) get behind us defensively. It’s tough, and certainly is even tougher that late in the game.”
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Strother was 6-15 passing for 50 yards against East. He also carried the ball 7 times for 80 yards and 1 touchdown.
Armstrong had 12 carries for 80 yards. Nicholson had 5 catches for 60 yards, 2 kickoff returns including 1 for a touchdown, as well as 17 tackles. Smith had 8 tackles and 2 sacks. Edwards had 8 tackles and 2 interceptions.
Sullivan East had 103 passing yards and 200 rushing yards for 303 total yards of offense. The Blue Devils had 50 passing yards and 112 rushing yards for 162 total yards of offense.
“It’s very simple, if you’re going to have success in this game you have to block and right now we aren’t doing it,” Rice said. “I am the offensive line coach, and their performance falls on my shoulders. We are going to shuffle some guys around and find a way to fix it.”
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The Blue Devils will have a chance to bounce back from the last two weeks on Thursday, Aug. 31, when they travel to North Greene for their first region game of the season. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
“They are 1-1 and right now have won more than we have,” Rice said of North Greene. “Coach (Scotty) Verran does a good job down there. We have to have a good week of practice, especially since it’s a short week. We look forward to getting this taste out of our mouth.”
Rice said his players are ready to bounce back from the two losses.
“I think we have shown that we have some talented kids,” he said. “We just have to limit our mistakes and find a way to maximize the talent we have. Our kids are invested in this program, and they are bought in. We are going to stay the course and everything else will take care of itself. I am very proud of how they have not let these two losses define our entire season.
“We are going to address some things offensively and defensively and move some guys around. We have told our guys that we are still 0-0 in the region and our ultimate goal is still on the table for us.”