Bradley Central is hoping the second verse isn’t the same as the first when the Bears make their second trip to Athens in a week Friday night.
After blowing a 21-point lead and allowing McMinn County 34 straight points in last week’s District 5-AAA championship game, the wounded Bears are looking for some redemption as the longtime rivals meet for the 90th time, but the first in the series that dates back to 1916 that they will be playing on consecutive Fridays.
“It’s tough enough playing a team twice in a season, but twice in a week is really a challenge,” commented Bradley head coach Damon Floyd.
“This is a block-and-tackle game. We didn’t do a very good job of that last week,” he added. “We are banged up, like we’ve been all year, but we are going to line up with who we have available and do our best.”
The Bears were able to make a late score to close a double-digit deficit to just five points and another down to the wire battle is expected again this week.
“There’ll be no secrets. It will be a matter of execution and not turning the ball over,” coach Floyd assessed. “They have a powerful running game that nobody has been able to stop this year, but we’ll have to find a way to slow them down.”
The Cherokees 1-2 punch ground attack has seen senior Walker Valley transfer Kelvin Wells Jr. and junior Dre Sanders combining for more than 1,900 yards this season, including 255 in last week’s battle.
“They are the best running back combination we’ve seen all year,” commented coach Floyd. “Both get a lot of yards after contact. Wells is a cut runner with a lot of moves, while Sanders will run you over and keep going. We are going to have to hit them, wrap them up and get help to bring them down.”
The pair had a half dozen runs for double-digit gains last Friday, including a 72-yard touchdown run by Wells and a 62-yard gain by Sanders. The Bear defense was able to trap them behind the line seven times, plus sophomore linebacker Daniel Clark stripped the ball from Wells’ hands for a turnover on the game’s second play from scrimmage.
Bradley actually held the speedy Wells to just 32 yards on 13 first-half carries, but Sanders picked up the slack with 96 on nine rushes during the same two quarters. The roles were reversed in the second half with Wells finishing with 142 yards on the night and Sanders with 115.
Going with an empty backfield alignment, the Bears countered by putting the ball in the air a season-high 42 times against the high pressure rush of the Cherokee front four.
Senior signal caller Bryce Copeland completing 25 passes for 330 yards and a pair of scores. Junior wideout Dee Crisp also tossed a 34-yard flea-flicker touchdown to classmate Cal Pickel. Crisp was the main target on the night with 17 receptions for 170 yards.
“They (McMinn) have a very good front four (on defense), so we were trying to do something to keep them off balance, and it worked for a while,” Floyd stated. “We’ll have to give them a few different looks this week. We’re going to have to make them respect the run more, so they just can’t tee off on the pass rush.”
“Whatever we do, we’ve got to do a better job of blocking and getting a body on them (the front four),” he added.
McMinn County went 9-1 during the regular season while winning its second straight district title, with its lone loss coming to Farragut (which finished the season at 3-7) in Week 4.
Meanwhile, Bradley went 6-4 during the campaign with its four losses coming to state-ranked East Hamilton (9-1) and Baylor (7-3), plus district rivals Ooltewah (7-3) and McMinn, all of which are part of seven Bear opponents to make the postseason.
The Cherokees are making their ninth playoff appearance since 2000, while Bradley is playing in just its third straight postseason. Both teams went one-and-done last season with McMinn falling at home to Oak Ridge, while the Bears dropped a heartbreaker on a soggy Cookeville field.
The only two times in the second-longest rivalry in the state the two teams have played twice in a season was in 2000 and 1943.
Both times Bradley won both games. In 2000, the Bears turned a 20-16 regular season win into a 42-0 playoff rout, while in ’43 it was a 12-6 decision the first time and a 19-6 tally in a bowl game.
All TSSAA playoff games kick off at 7 p.m. All tickets are $8 with the only passes accepted being the TSSAA State Championship pass or the Fall TACA pass, which are good for only one person each. Gates will open at 5 p.m. Friday.