Since the renewal of the Bradley Central-Polk County gridiron series five years ago, the battles have been exciting and provided a great start to the new football seasons.
Friday night’s “Backyard Brawl VI” is expected to be the same, as the action returns to Bear Stadium after two straight years in Benton.
The Wildcats pulled off a stunning 29-27 upset last August thanks to a vicious stop on a two-point conversion attempt on the final play for its first-ever victory over Bradley in Benton.
After Polk led 14-0 at the half, the Bears fought back to even the score in the third quarter. However, the hosts went back up by two scores, plus had a gutsy two-point play of their own, in the final frame.
Bradley was able to once again close the gap, when a touchdown pass with 3.2 ticks on the clock set up the dramatic final play. The Wildcat defense cut off a possible pass into the end zone for the conversion and the Bear QB had to dump the ball off to a running back, who was immediately met by Gatlin Lanning and Devin Weber and dropped before he could reach the goal line.
“You expect those type of games when you play them (Polk),” commented Bradley head coach Damon Floyd. “They are a very tough, hard-nosed team, probably the most physical of anybody we play.”
The Bears hold a 25-8-1 advantage since the series began in 1917, but the difference since the games renewed is just 3-2 in favor of the Black-and-Gold.
Although Class 6A Bradley has three times as many students as 3A Polk (1,800 to 600), the size difference hasn’t seemed to matter when it has come time to play.
“It’s a game that has created a lot of excitement in the communities and has been the biggest draw for both teams the last several years,” Floyd remarked. “There’s a lot of pride on the line.”
“Our people enjoy the game and it’s a great way to open the season,” echoed Wildcat head coach Derrick Davis. “The game helps us win or lose. It’s a great atmosphere.
“While the games have been great and winning last year was tremendous, we know that has no bearing on this year’s game,” the Wildcat mentor assessed. “The seniors from both teams are gone, which means a lot of great players won’t be on the field. This is a new group, with an opportunity for new players to step up.”
The most notable absence for Polk will be two-time all-state fullback/linebacker Zach Miller, who touched the ball 42 times for 194 yards and three scores in last year’s victory. In the last two seasons, Miller accumulated 3,968 yards and a total of 48 touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder is now playing for Carson-Newman College. Also gone is Wildcat all-state lineman Tanner Plemmons.
Sophomore Seth Sloan (6-0, 200), who had just 24 yards on a half dozen carries last season, is stepping into Miller’s cleats.
“Nobody expects Seth to do what Zach did, players like him (Miller) don’t come along often. We expect Seth to do well, plus we’ll do some other things to have other players help share the load,” related Davis.
Senior Isaac Smith (5-11, 180), who completed his only pass last season for 27 yards, takes over as the Wildcat quarterback.
“Overall our numbers are down (only 49 players), plus we got two starters hurt in a scrimmage against Tyner last week,” Davis explained. “We will be without our backup quarterback and one of our starting two-way linemen Friday night.”
With 98 players on their roster, the Bears on the other hand come into the game, “as healthy as we ever have for a season opening game,” declared Floyd. “For the first time we didn’t get anybody hurt in the jamboree and we’ve been relatively healthy through the preseason.”
After back-to-back seasons with four-year starters at the helm, the game will be the first varsity start for sophomore signal caller Cole Copeland, who continues a long family tradition of standout Bear two-sport athletes.
The 6-foot-3, 175-pounder completed 19-of-31 passes for 287 yards and a pair of TDs, plus averaged better than five yards a carry with 86 yards on 17 rushes as the Bear backup last season.
Having pulled in 38 receptions for 523 yards (13.8 yards per catch), senior Daniel Clark is the top returning starter in a very deep receiver corps for the Black-and-Gold that Coach Floyd said can go eight players deep.
Bradley lost all-stater Dee Crisp and standout Cal Pickel to graduation.
In a true clash of the “wide-open spread” style of play and “old school, smash-mouth football,” both Floyd and Davis agree each team knows what to expect from the other.
“They know what we are going to do and we know what they are going to do,” both commented is separate interviews earlier this week. “It’s a matter of who executes better and holds on to the football.
“This is one of the most talked about games on our schedule. It’s becoming a rivalry to equal what we have with Cleveland, Walker Valley, Ooltewah or McMinn County,” assessed Floyd.
“The community has really gotten into us playing this game. I like starting the season with a game like this,” the Wildcat coach added. “I’d rather have that excitement and challenge to start the season, rather than to play somebody you know you’re going to beat, that you really can’t get pumped for.”
“It’s going to be a very physical, emotional game with such a big crowd (over 5,000 expected),” expressed coach Floyd. “We are playing one of the most respected teams in our area that has been to the playoffs for 13 straight years. It’s been a great way to start the season the last five years, and I expect nothing less Friday night.”
Bradley fans will get a chance to honor a pair of important people in Black-and Gold history before the game and during halftime of the season opener.
“Blake Morris is coming to be our honorary captain for the game,” related Floyd of the former Bear all-state running back/linebacker who was a finalist for the Mr. Tennessee Football award back in 2000.
After the Bradley and Polk County bands perform, a special halftime ceremony will be held to honor longtime “Voice of Bradley County” Corky Whitlock, who has stepped away from the broadcast booth after 52 years of calling local sports on the radio.
Gates will open at 5:30 Friday evening with kickoff set for 7:30. With temperatures expected to be in the 90s with a heat index above 100, fans are encouraged to be well hydrated before coming to the game to deal with the extreme conditions.