With Week 5 comes the second half of the football season and for the Cleveland Raiders (4-1, 2-0), that means an uphill climb all the way to the finish.
In the Raiders’ final five games of the regular season, all but one are District 5-AAA matchups.
“I think that we beat four teams that we’re better than. I think that what we’re going into now, this next stretch of five games, starting with Knox West, everyone is pretty much even. We have to figure out how to elevate our game and continue playing with passion for that one night,” Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford explained.
This Friday though, a fourth ranked 5A Cleveland team travels to Knoxville for a 7:30 battle with the third ranked 5A Knox West team.
Besides what has been seen on film and in the history books, the Rebels are a mostly unknown entity to the Cleveland football program.
Knox West has been a strong playoff contender for the past few years, and reached the state semifinals in 2010 and 2011 and made it to the second round of the playoffs last year.
Currently, the Rebels are 3-1, with their only loss thus far coming to perennial state title contender Maryville.
“I have noticed that they have been a playoff team for the past few years so this will be a big matchup for us,” Crawford said. “There is still so much season left for both of us, and neither team has qualified for the playoffs yet. I think it’s just a good midseason matchup between two teams who have a lot of players back. One of the teams has been a consistent playoff team and good contender for running deep in the playoffs, and the other one is trying to get there.”
So far this season West has averaged 36 points a game, while Cleveland has averaged 40.8 ppg.
The Raiders high scoring average is greatly aided by both their passing and running game.
“We’ve got to run the football. We’ve played five games, and in four of our games where we ran the football well we won. You don’t get into the playoffs and not run the football,” Crawford commented.
Last week, the Raiders put up a strong offensive show, and topped District 5-AAA opponent Soddy-Daisy by a score of 51-14.
In their rout of the Trojans, coach Crawford saw impressive play on both sides of the ball by his team.
“TJ Parker had a really good football game running the ball. We’ve worked with him on some plays that he runs really well. I thought he did very good on getting his body vertical and falling forward, getting extra yardage. We had a good night out of DJ Jones and Austin Herink, who continue to do great things for us,” Crawford said. “Defensively, Kimsey Bell came back and it’s like he never missed a beat with his effort and the amount of tackles he had. In addition to that, Darius Pillow played a really good game — I think he had 13 tackles and three tackles for loss. He was really a force for us at inside linebacker. Oscar Galvan, our kicker, continues to amaze me with his improvement. He fought through an injury and did a great job for us last Friday.”
Despite their success thus far, Crawford is still looking for move overall consistency from the Raiders.
“Consistency is the thing that we need to see and it must be coaching, because we still bust some fundamentals defensively. Offensively, we didn’t get the zone blocked (last week) like we wanted to; we thought it would be a good play and it wasn’t. The thing we’re looking for is consistency,” Crawford explained.
One aspect the Cleveland coaching staff is still working on is the game mentality of their younger players.
“We are still trying to get our young guys to compete and not just walk on and off the field. We’re still building our program in a lot of ways. Our older guys have more of a grasp on what we expect and how we go about operating,” Crawford stated.
There have been some players who have caught the coach’s eye when it comes to their work efforts and consistency on the field.
“When you talk about consistency, offensive line wise it’s been John Gaither, our center, has been our most consistent stalwart up front. Eric Goodwin is a guy that is consistent in his blocking and pass catching. We need continued consistency out of our secondary, which has been on and off each week,” Crawford said. “Two guys who have had a lot of pressure applied to them are Michael Huff and Will Hilliker at corner. I think they have responded and given us some positive minutes and it was great to see Will get that interception last week. They have approached this thing the right way and show up for work and get better every day and compete hard.”
While not much is known about their Knoxville opponent, the coach is familiar with their old-school ways on the field.
“Knoxville West runs the Carson-Newman split back veer. I think coach (Scott) Cummings played at Carson-Newman. It was a system of triple option offense that saw its heyday in the ’70s. The only people I know that are running it in college still is Carson-Newman and I don’t know anyone besides Know West that runs it in high school,” Crawford explained. “It involves creating toughness in your kids and it’s a quick, option-oriented attack. I have not seen it since my senior year in high school, which was the fall of 1978. It’s a throwback and is a good system — it gives them a little bit of an edge because no one else is doing it.”
While practice has been business as usual for Raiders, there has been a few key areas that have been worked on this week.
“We’ve been practicing triple option without a ball because it’s responsibility assignments — somebody has to tackle the dive, somebody has to tackle the quarterback and somebody has to tackle the pitch. We have to have a real focus and attention to details,” Crawford noted. “We’ve got to find things within our system and find things to help us contain them and we have to apply some pressure. They play with really big splits sometimes up front, and we’ve got to have gap control and have to play the dive quarterback pitch regardless of what they give us.”
For the head coach, the key to a successful go of it Friday will be getting things started on a positive note and maintaining a strong mental attitude.
“We have to get off to a good start, and hopefully make them play from behind and make them search to find some offense. In their only loss, Maryville got the lead and then West had to play from behind and they got out of what they do best,” Crawford declared. “We have to match them in the kicking game, and they have dynamic returners just like we do. They have 22 starters and nobody goes both ways, so the challenge for us will be matching their depth and resting patterns so that our guys who do play both ways get some rest. We have to keep our poise, stay with the game plan, don’t panic and stay smart about things — it’s 48 minutes, not one quarter or one half.”