Survive and advance. Lose and go home.
That's where the Walker Valley Mustangs are as they approach Round 1 of the TSSAA playoffs.
After finishing the regular season with a 4-6 record, the Mustangs face a tough challenge against 9-1 Knoxville West, ranked No. 4 in the state.
“At the team meeting we talked about being in the playoffs and it's survive and advance,” said first-year Mustangs coach Drew Akins. “This is a new mentality for us, for sure. We're excited about the experience: We get to go play a great football team in a great atmosphere. I'm excited for our kids to feel that playoff atmosphere. It's going to be a fun atmosphere.”
Akins said the Herd will have to be at its very best against the Rebels, who have a multitude of weapons at their disposal on both offense and defense.
“They've got weapons everywhere. Defensively, they have a defensive end (No. 4) and a strong side linebacker (Drew Francis) that are both D-I commits to Arkansas. They are really good football players. The rest of them get overshadowed by those two. They are so sound everywhere,” said Akins.
“Offensively, they have a running back who can play, they have a receiver who can play and they have an offensive tackle who is really good. Their quarterback does enough where if you have too many hats in the box he can throw it to hurt you. They are definitely a very well balanced offense. Really, they hang their hat on their defense. They are outstanding on defense.”
Akins will be looking for the same type of performance from the Mustangs against the Rebels as they produced in a 28-21 loss at Soddy-Daisy in last week's regular season finale, where ball control took Walker Valley to the wire.
“We're going to do what we did last week. We're going to take the best version of ourselves up there,'' he acknowledged. “We'll have a similar game plan where we try to control the ball on them and put ourselves in a situation where in the fourth quarter we have a chance to compete.
“They are good, obviously. They are 9-1 and in the top 10 in the state. They are a really good football team, but we are peaking at the right time,” Akins continued. “We need to be the best possible version of us. If we do, we will have a chance to compete at the end. We're trying to get great at something — I think we got really good at it last week. Now we need to take the next step. If we do and we play the same game as we played last week then we're going to have a similar opportunity in the fourth quarter (to tie or win). "
Last week it was assignment football that almost did the trick for the Mustangs. This week the Walker Valley staff wants the same kind of effort and full-out play from start to finish.
“We didn't miss lot of assignments last week, that's why we played so well. Up front we didn't miss a lot of assignments, at receiver we didn't miss many assignments. If you don't have missed assignments and you are man-on-man, you are going to to have the opportunity to move the football and control the clock. That's our goal: to have as few missed assignments as possible. If we do that we gain four to five yards a play and we control the clock,” Akins stated. “We've got to limit negative plays when we get on their side of the field and take advantage of it. We took advantage of it in the first half last week and didn't take advantage of it in the second half. That was the difference in the football game.”
After 10 weeks of taking what the opposing defense gives them, Akins sees no reason to alter the mindset for Friday. Stack the box, throw. Empty the box, run.
“The idea is the same. We're going to go up there with the mindset we're going to throw the ball when they give us the opportunity to throw. If they add an extra hat to the box we have to be able to complete passes. We've got to get it to the fourth quarter and be able to compete in the fourth quarter,” he said.
After a tough loss a couple of weeks ago to Loudon, Akins was afraid his Mustangs had topped out for the season and may have been ready to fold the tent last week. But the Mustangs showed just the opposite, playing from start to finish with a chance to tie the game on the last play.
“We've got kids who are really competing. I really feared last week after Loudon that we may have peaked,” commented Akins. “Man, if our kids didn't break through that ceiling and take the next step! I know it didn't turn into a win last week, but you saw a different football team. You saw a different mentality. You saw a different attitude. We're going to take that same mentality and that same attitude up to Knox West."
The Mustangs understand they have a big job ahead of them Friday night. But, facing a veteran foe and going against the best is what Akins wants his team to experience as they continue to move forward and work to continue to prepare for the future.
“We are going to have our work cut out for us. But, it's a great challenge. When you start getting good at something, you want to face a challenging opponent so you can see how good you've gotten. We're excited about it,” said Akins.
"Our kids are excited to play. They are excited to be in the playoffs. It's a really cool experience these kids haven't gotten to experience in the past two years," the coach added. "It's something I'm excited to give them the opportunity to experience.
“It's been a fun year and in no way in our minds is this the end of our season. We are taking it one day at a time and we're excited for the opportunity to get better at what we're doing," Akins concluded. "That's what we're using this week for: Let's just go get better at what we do.”