By Keeli Parkey
A slow start doomed the Unicoi County High School football team against an old rival last week.
Playing at Happy Valley in a non-region game on Friday, Sept. 7, the Blue Devils (3-1, 1-0) fell behind 13-0 in the first quarter of a game that could have given the program its first 4-0 start to a season since 1984.
“We took one on the chin for sure,” head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “It was very disappointing, to say the least.”
The Blue Devils fell behind in the first quarter against South Greene and Sullivan East earlier this season, but they were able to overcome those deficits and win the games. That was the not case at Warrior Hill last week.
“It definitely was the difference in the game,” Rice said of the slow start. “We have said that if we continue to dig ourselves in a hole early, it would come back to bite us and that’s exactly what happened.”
The Blue Devils put together their first scoring drive of the game with around 5 minutes to play in the second quarter. Carries by Kody Lewis and a completed pass from quarterback Brock Thompson to Noah White brought UCHS near the goal line. On fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard-line, Thompson found Austin O’Dell in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Martin Porras converted the point-after attempt and the Blue Devils had momentum going into the second half.
UCHS took the lead in the third quarter on a 6-minute drive that culminated in a 4-yard rush by Lewis into the end zone. Porras again converted the extra point for a 14-13 Blue Devil lead.
On the Warriors’ ensuing possession, a penalty against Happy Valley forced them into a first-and-23 and it appeared the Blue Devil defense would be able to stop the drive. However, miscommunication by UCHS led to a play that changed the tide of the game. With 11 minutes to play, Dakota Cochran scored on a 40-yard touchdown pass. The Warriors successfully went for a 2-point conversion and took a 21-14 lead.
“Our secondary play was not great at any point Friday night,” Rice said. “We gave up some big plays at some very inopportune times. The seam route they hit on us to take the lead back really hurt. We were misaligned to it, which makes it even more frustrating.”
Lewis returned the next kickoff to midfield and the Blue Devils began a solid possession until mistakes, including a turnover, gave the Warriors possession with 9:30 to play in the game. The three UCHS turnovers on Friday were the first of the season for the squad.
“As happy as we were to not turn the ball over any in the first three games, we also knew that turnovers are a part of the game,” Rice said. “So, we probably were due for some breaks to not go our way. … Regardless, it doesn’t matter now and we have to move on, get better and focus on this week.”
Happy Valley put the game out of reach when they scored on the following possession. This time, on a 1-yard run by Cochran. The extra point missed, but the 27-14 lead was too much for UCHS to overcome and the Warriors held on for the victory.
“Thankfully, it wasn’t a region game,” Rice said of the loss. “We told our guys after that all our goals for the season are still staring us right in the face. A region championship, a home playoff game and a winning season are all still on the table for us. We cannot let one game dictate the rest of our season. We were 1-3 this time last year and made a pretty good run down the stretch, so we feel confident we can do that being 3-1.”
Friday’s game was the first time the UCHS offense had been outgained by an opponent this season. Happy Valley had 251 yards of total offense, while the Blue Devils had 232.
“Playing from behind basically the entire game really limited us to a degree as far as what we wanted to do offensively,” Rice said. “They brought a lot of pressure, like we knew they would, and they really disrupted our rhythm. Once we got down in the fourth quarter and they knew we had to pass it, it became very very difficult for us and that led to some bad turnovers.”
Thompson had 105 yards on 8-19 passing, with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. He also carried the ball 6 times for 32 yards.
“Those all aren’t Brock,” Rice said of the interceptions. “Probably only one of the three were. Our protection was not what we expect of our guys and we felt like it was a pass interference on the one to Brett (Strother) that didn’t get called in the first half.”
Strother had 4 catches for 44 yards. Peyton Whitson had 2 catches for 25 yards. White had 1 catch for 26 yards and 5 carries for 22 yards. O’Dell had 1 catch for 10 yards and a touchdown. Lewis had 13 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown.
White paced the Blue Devil defense with 3 tackles, 7 assists and a sack. Strother had 3 tackles and 5 assists.
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Region 1-3A opponent Claiborne County (1-3, 1-0) awaits the Blue Devils on Friday, Sept. 14. Their only win of the season came on Aug. 30 at West Greene.
UCHS defeated Claiborne 21-0 in Erwin last season and 35-22 at Claiborne in 2016; however, Rice expects the Bulldogs to be a tough opponent.
“They run a tough offense to defend and they always give people trouble with it,” he added. “They have some good looking kids on film. It’s a long trip down there, so we are going to have to have a great focus all week, including Friday.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.