“We are a lot alike. They are very athletic with an offense that has big play potential and a read-and-react defense that doesn’t take a lot of chances,” the Bradley Central head coach said of the McMinn County team that will come on the warpath to Bear Stadium Friday evening with the District 5-AAA championship up for grabs.
Both teams are 7-2 on the season and with perfect 5-0 marks in league play as they meet for the 87th time in the second-longest rivalry in the state.
Although the Bears hold a 49-35-3 advantage in the series that dates back to the beginnings of Bradley football in 1916, the Cherokees dominated the last decade, winning nine straight before last year’s 35-7 mauling in Athens got the monkey off the Bears’ back.
“This is our third straight game against a big rival (Bradley blanked Walker Valley and Cleveland the previous two weeks), but with all that’s on the line, our guys will be pumped up,” commented Floyd, who will be coaching his sixth game against the Tribe.
Both the eighth-ranked Bears and Cherokees are headed to the TSSAA playoffs but having the district crown will give the winner a higher seed and pretty much guarantee home games for at least the first two rounds of the postseason.
“One of our goals coming into the season was to win the district. I’m sure they have the same goal,” Floyd remarked.
Before the season, Bradley was picked by the area media to win the 5-AAA crown, while McMinn County, which won the title in 2009, was predicted to finish fourth by both the media and district coaches.
Having played the same district opponents, the Bears outscored the rest of 5-AAA by a 194-62 margin, while the Cherokees won their five league games 173-90.
Bradley’s two losses have come to top-ranked Baylor (8-1) and No. 9 Blackman (6-3), while McMinn fell to McCallie (4-4), which was ranked earlier in the year, and Farragut (6-3), which just fell out of the Top 10 this week after dropping back-to-back games to No. 1 Maryville (9-0) and playoff bound Lenoir City (5-4).
While the comparison between the two teams leans in favor of the Bears, the boys from Athens aren’t far behind.
Bradley’s offense averages more than 405 yards per game, having gained 1,993 yards on the ground and 1,660 through the air so far this season.
The Tribe have gained more than 301 yards an outing, with a very balanced attack of 1,386 rushing yards and 1,326 passing.
The Bears have averaged more than 36 points a game, while allowing just under 18. McMinn has put up more than 31 points each week, while surrendering less than 22.
Junior Bryce Copeland (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) directs the Bradley offense, completing 104-of-162 passes for 1,566 yards and 18 TDs, plus he is second on the team in rushing with 558 yards on 78 carries, seven of which found paydirt.
Senior Nathan Simbeck (6-foot-4, 176) is the field general for the Cherokees, connecting on 95-of-153 aerials for 1,36 yards and 14 scores. He has also gained 140 yards on 93 carries and a score.
Senior Justin Houston (5-foot-8, 160) leads the Bradley offense with 828 yards on 72 carries (11.5 average), plus he has caught 16 passes for 333 yards (20.5 average) and found the end zone 17 times. Senior Rue Goldston (5-foot-8, 160) , who suffered a turf toe injury last Friday but is expected to play this week, has added 268 yards on 42 carries, including a trio of scores.
Sophomore Dre Sanders (5-foot-6, 163) tops the Tribe with 725 rushing yards on 135 tries, for eight scores. Senior Patrick Lindsey (5-foot-11, 186) is averaging 9.8 yards per carry (29-for-285) and 16.7 (9-for-150) receiving, while classmate Dylan Plaster (5-foot-7, 173) has 228 yards on 51 carries. Both have scored five touchdowns.
Both teams have dangerous receivers with the Bears featuring all-state senior wideout James Stovall (6-foot-3, 185) with 675 yards on 46 catches with nine scores, while McMinn is led by senior Cedric Nevins (6-foot, 200) with 358 yards on 25 receptions and a half dozen TDs.
Sophomore Cal Pickel (6-foot, 170) has pulled in 23 catches for 331 yards and three scores, while senior Brandon Davis (6-foot-3, 213) has 256 yards on 13 catches, including a trio that went the distance.
Senior Dorian Simpson (5-foot-8, 153) has 11 catches for 215 yards with a pair of scores for the Tribe, while Bear junior Caleb Cain (6-foot-1, 190) also has two TDs, with 13 catches for 184 yards.
The Cherokees have converted 7-of-11 fourth-down tries this season, but are just 35-for-95 on third-down tries.
On the other side of the ball, Bradley’s defense has dealt back-to-back shutouts, while allowing 2,887 yards and just 21 TDs all season. The “Black Hole D” has a 14-7 turnover ratio, with 10 interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Bear offense has turned the ball over on four interceptions and lost just three fumbles.
McMinn’s defense has given up only 2,214 yards and 24 touchdowns. The lowest point totals they’ve allowed was seven points in the season opener to McMinn Central (1-9) and 10 to winless Walker Valley.
The Cherokees have turned the ball over 11 times (5 fumbles, 6 interceptions) and have 15 takeaways (8 fumble recoveries, 7 interceptions).
On special teams, Bradley sophomore Clayton Steels is 39-of-42 on extra-point attempts, plus has a field goal and has punted 21 times for a 33.2 average. Senior Miles Christian is averaging better than 54 yards per kickoff, including 17 touchbacks this season.
For McMinn, senior Nathan Gill is 23-of-30 on PATs and 5-of-6 on field goals, hitting from 42 yards out for his longest. Senior Conar Roberts has averaged 37.6 yards on 35 punts.
“In a game like this, whoever makes the fewest mistakes will win,” commented Floyd. “They don’t turn the ball over much and neither do we.”
“Being such similar teams, we have to concentrate and not give them any extra chances to score,” he added. “We need to stay focused on what we do best and try to keep them from getting the big plays on us.”