If there's one thing the Bradley Central coaching staff has learned about playing Ooltewah — never count the Owls out.
The past two seasons, the Bears have raced out to large leads only to have the pesky Red team fight back with three-touchdown runs in the second half.
Last year's 21-point, 8 1/2-minute third quarter rally was enough for a costly 28-27 victory over Bradley in Bear Stadium.
In 2017, the Owls put a trio of scores on the board in the final frame to close a 21-point gap before Bradley held on for a 42-35 win.
"We've had a lot of close games with them (four of last six have been one-score games, with three being two points or less)," remarked veteran "Papa Bear" Damon Floyd.
"Last year we lost to them by a point (28-27). That really hurt us in the playoffs," he related. "Because of that, we had to go on a three-hour road trip to open the playoffs (a 24-21 loss at Science Hill in Johnson City), instead of getting to play at home (against a Hardin Valley team the Owls beat 35-28).
This year's game could have similar circumstances on the line.
"There are huge playoff implications again this time," Floyd assessed. "To be honest, in our region (2-6A), you've got (16-time state champion) Maryville and then the rest of us are fighting for the other home playoff berth."
The Bears, who moved up to fifth in this week's Associated Press Class 6A state poll, have bounced back from a disappointing season-opening loss with three straight dominating victories by a combined 170-49 tally.
Meanwhile, the Owls are 1-2 and coming off a last-minute heartbreaking region loss to McMinn County.
"McMinn (3-0) has a lot of players back and (third-ranked 3A) Red Bank (4-0) only beat them by a point (17-16), so their (Ooltewah's) losses are to very good, unbeaten teams," proclaimed Floyd.
The Owls have a 31-7 region win over William Blount two weeks ago, but had their season-opener suspended during the third quarter due to storms and lightning while trailing fifth-ranked (5A) and unbeaten David Crockett 19-16. That game will not be completed unless it will effect either team's playoff position.
"Ooltewah is having to replace a very good, veteran quarterback (Kyrell Sanford) and Sincere Quinn, who is one of the best high school running backs I've ever seen," declared Floyd.
In the last two meetings, Sanford ran and threw for over 600 yards, plus accounted for six TDs, while Quinn had 200 yards and a trio of scores.
"They've got guys who are stepping up this year. New names, but like always at Ooltewah they're very athletic and team speed isn't an issue," the Bear coach commented. "Their offensive line is very big, with their left tackle (senior Christian Benoit 6-foot-4, 270) having a lot of D-I offers (including Virginia Tech)." Beniot had eight pancake blocks in a single game this season.
"It's important, because of the size they have, for us to be able to get off blocks and get to the ball.
"They are pretty similar, offensively, to what they've been in the past, although with their two-back set, their run game being primary," Floyd added.
"Defensively, they've gone from a 4-man to a 3-man front because so many people are running the spread (offense) now."
Although Bradley holds an 18-13 series edge over the Owls, most of those victories (14) came between 1985-2001.
"They've had our number lately (10 wins in last 13 meetings since 2004) and personally I'm just 3-8 against them as the head coach," explained Floyd.
"In the last decade or so it has become a rivalry game. It's not Cleveland or Walker Valley, but it is definitely a rivalry game."
Bradley could once again be without one of its key weapons with All-Region senior Saylor Clark a "game-time decision," according to Floyd.
"Saylor (Clark) is questionable with his high-ankle sprain. He is still limping when he's running (as of Tuesday)."
The team's leading returning receiver, Clark is a three-year starter who had 11 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown in the first two games before missing last week.
As for the rest of his offense that has put up 1,784 yards and 188 points so far (junior Javon Burke also has a record-setting 97-yard kickoff return, plus a 48-yard fumble defensive "scoop-and-score" for the other two Bear scores), Floyd proclaimed it all starts up front.
"Our offensive line has been dominate the last three games, opening some big holes. (Running backs) Ricky (McCleary) and Tray (Curry) don't need but a little crease and they are gone with it, but these guys have been opening massive holes," he said of seniors Jerad Fox, Jake Tipton, Michael Holyfield and CJ Dills, plus junior Bennett Burris.
"It would be nice if we can continue to run the ball like we've been doing," commented Floyd. "Last week was one of the best games our offensive line has played since I've been at Bradley."
McCleary and Curry have combined for 644 yards on 62 touches (10.4-yard average), and have found the end zone a dozen times so far this season.
Junior QB Javin Burke has been a dual threat, completing 37-of-62 passes for 671 yards, with seven scoring tosses, plus he has gained 233 yards on 23 carries, including two more TDs.
Newcomer Issac Vaughn has been near-perfect in his first football season, booting 24-of-25 on PATs, including 23 in a row, plus has a pair of field goals. The senior soccer player has been a perfect 7-for-7 on extra points in each of the last three Bear victories.
On the other side of the ball, Floyd has been pleased with his starting defense, which has allowed just four scores in the past three outings.
"Our defense has come on strong the last few games. We need to be sound and not try to over do it. We just need to make sure we keep doing what we've been doing — line up and tackle."
After turning the ball over four times in the 36-30 loss to Farragut to open the season, the Bears have done a good job of holding onto the pigskin with zero turnovers since.
Floyd knows that will be key again this week. "Limiting turnovers, penalties and mistakes are key to beating Ooltewah.
"The history we've had with them, the region implications and the fact of playing at Ooltewah, we know this game is different from what we've faced the past three weeks."