With a convincing 42-8 victory over White County in Sparta last Friday, the fifth-ranked Blue Raiders (8-3) will travel west once again this week, but this time just across the Tennessee River to Evensville to take on a much-improved Rhea County squad.
Although it kept him from making the playoffs for the first time in 17 years as a head coach, Cleveland mentor Ron Crawford says the chance to play Rhea County this Friday does not serve as potential retribution.
“Us beating Rhea County Friday night does nothing for 2012. The 2012 season is dead, buried and over; they beat us. We’re playing them in 2013,” Raider head coach Ron Crawford said in downplaying the “payback” theory.
“If we have a player who needs to utilize that as motivation then hey, go for it. For me, that doesn’t work,” Crawford remarked.
The veteran coach is right — this isn’t the 1-8 Golden Eagle squad that pulled off the stunning 29-27 upset in Benny Monroe Stadium in it’s District 5-AAA swan song last fall.
With new head coach Mark Pemberton in charge, this year’s Rhea County team was ranked sixth in the final Class 5A Associated Press poll and comes into the second-round playoff battle sporting a 10-1 record and the District 6-AAA banner.
“He’s (Pemberton) done a remarkable job with them. The team has experienced a great turnaround. We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us,” assessed coach Crawford.
Although they’ve never faced each other, Crawford is familiar with Pemberton, who followed him as head coach at Brentwood two years ago.
“When I came here (CHS), he was at Macon County and took the job I left at Brentwood,” Crawford explained.
In his only season with the Bruins, Pemberton posted an 11-2 record and led them to the Class 6A state quarterfinals last year.
A former offensive coordinator at Rhea County under former Eagle coach Jason Fitzgerald, Pemberton was the head coach for Knoxville Catholic’s 2008 undefeated state championship run.
While Pemberton has had four head coaching jobs since leaving Catholic, he has a 171-70 overall record as he has returned close to the childhood home. He was the starting quarterback for the 1976 Rockwood team that claimed a TSSAA state title.
“He’s a very good coach and has brought back a hard-nosed, hardworking attitude to Rhea County football,” commented Crawford.
Going 5-0 in their first 6-AAA race, the Eagles’ only loss this season came to Walker Valley in Week 3.
Rhea held a 17-0 advantage in the second quarter of that game, only to see the Mustangs put 24 unanswered points on “The Corral” scoreboard, including 17 in the final 10 minutes.
Four weeks later, Cleveland handed Walker Valley its worst lost of the season by a 48-14 tally.
The Eagles and Raiders had three other common opponents, with both posting easy victories over Soddy-Daisy and Cookeville, but Rhea claimed a 27-24 win over East Hamilton, while Cleveland dropped a 21-20 heartbreaker for its only 5-AAA loss of the season.
Running a very potent wing-T offense that is so tight the linemen’s feet are touching each other, Rhea County has outscored its opponents 443-151 this season.
“It’s wadded up in there. There are no splits (between linemen). Everything is tight, but because of the ability to throw the football out there and get it to three different backs, it creates balance in its own way,” Crawford explained.
Averaging more than 40 points a game, the Eagle offense has gained 3,954 yards so far this season. Using a “run first” approach, they have gained 2,558 on the ground and 1,396 through the air.
With the three-headed attack of the wing-T, Rhea County has spread the ball-carrying duties around effectively.
A threat to score any time he touches the ball, speedy senior wingback Dimitrius Patterson has carried the ball 120 times for 853 yards (7.1 yards per carry average) and 11 TDs, plus has a dozen catches for 393 yards and six more scores.
Although he missed the last two games of the regular season with an injury, junior fullback Jacob York has gained 717 yards on 95 carries and four catches, finding the end zone 13 times.
Senior Joby Berry is also very quick and gets up the field in a hurry, gaining 502 yards on 72 carries, finding paydirt five times.
When they do go to the air, senior signal caller Austin Dotson has been very efficient, not throwing an interception this season while completing 58 percent of his 114 passes for just under 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Sophomore wide receiver Noel Patterson has pulled in 22 of those aerials for 532 yards and eight scores. He and older brother Dimitrius have similar speed and are the return men on kickoffs and punts.
Senior tight end Taylor Jenkins gives Dotson a big target at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and has hauled in 18 passes for 371 yard, four of which have crossed the goal line.
The Eagle defense has been impressive as well, giving up just 1,307 yards on the ground, including holding six opponents to under a 100 yards rushing.
The Rhea pass coverage has been even more stingy, allowing just 1,177 yards and picking off 21 interceptions. The Eagle “D” also has 15 fumble takeaways.
The junior linebacker tandem of Zach Daoust and Lee Hill have a combined 175 tackles and three takeaways.
Senior defensive linemen Daniel Cochran has 50 tackles, 23 solo, 12 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble and 12 quarterback hurries.
Fellow classmates and lineman Jacob Williams made 11 of his 50 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 6.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Senior DL C.J. Shelton has a pair of sacks, seven QB hurries and a pair of fumble recoveries, while being in on 30 tackles.
Junior defensive back Bryce Keylon leads the secondary with 44 tackles, 20 solos, 16 pass breakups and a trio of interceptions (including a 42-yard “Pick 6”). He forced four fumbles and recovered one, returning it 22 yards for a score.
According to coach Crawford, there are key things that he wants his team to focus on Friday night.
“We just need to score points Friday and it doesn’t matter how. We have to execute on both sides of the ball as well as on our kicking game. Our biggest thing will be getting them off the field. We think we can score some points, but Rhea has also gotten better on defense as well. We want to execute our offense.”
Scoring points has not been something that the Raiders have faced many struggles with this season.
Cleveland has outscored its opponents 386-225 and is averaging 35 points a game.
Completing 66 percent of his passes, senior QB Austin Herink has thrown for 2,788 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Averaging 24.4 yards per catch, senior wide receiver Tyler Davis has 1,000 yards on 41 receptions and scored 10 times.
Classmate DJ Jones has hauled in 58 catches for 854 yards (14.7 ypc) and 15 TDs. He also has four rushing scores and returned a kickoff 91 yards to paydirt.
Senior Parker Smith also has 41 receptions for a total of 413 yards (10.1 ypc) and three touchdowns.
The Raiders will be without another strong wide receiver, as Eric Goodwin’s season was ended by an injury.
Goodwin had 358 yards in 35 receptions, was averaging 10.2 yards a reception and had two touchdowns.
“I think that Eric Goodwin and Parker Smith offensively, are probably the unsung heroes. They did tons of blocking in the running game, made hard catches and first down catches. They would get in there and be a scout team player to help our defense. Those are guys who just want to win,” Crawford commented.
With Goodwin now out, the coach is looking to other players to step up.
“Now the question is who can step in there and be that guy. Both Jay McIntyre and Brandon Williams are those types of guys, but it remains to be seen if they can get in there and do what Eric can do,” Crawford relayed.
Cleveland’s running game is spearheaded by juniors TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion.
Parker has racked up 946 yards in 139 carries, and has five touchdowns to his name, while Bunion has 555 yards in 98 carries.
Herink himself, has a total of 219 yards in 72 rushing attempts, scoring a dozen times.
While the Raiders’ balanced offense is something their opponents have to be worried about, there is also the team’s defense to take into consideration.
“I think our guys are comfortable where they are. We’ve been able to move the ball in a variety of ways and have balance in our running game and passing game, unlike last year. Defensively, we’ve got the best defense in our district,” Crawford declared. “If you look at the district scores, we’ve given up fewer points than anybody in our district in those district games. We feel great about it and we’ve really tried to put the guys on the field who will maximize their efforts and skill sets.”
Cleveland’s defense is led by their seniors, the largest of whom is a 6-foot, 205-pounder. Despite a slight size disadvantage, the efforts put in by the Raiders’ defense have been immense.
Senior linebacker Jonathan Terrero has racked up 85 solo tackles, plus assisted on 41 more, plus has five turnover attacks.
Fellow linebacker Darius Pillow, has 71 solos in his 110 total hits. The senior also has 10 tackles for loss and six sacks.
Senior DB Jackson Earle has 52 solo tackles, 40 assists and a trio of takeaways, while defensive end Kimsey Bell has 41 solo tackles among 56 total hits and a half dozen sacks.
A victory Friday night will advance the Raiders to the state quarterfinals, where they would face one of the two teams they tied with for the District 5-AAA regular season title — seventh-ranked Ooltewah (9-2) or No. 8 East Hamilton (9-2).
Cleveland defeated the Owls, but fell to the Hurricanes in tough battles just a few weeks ago.
If it clears that hurdle, another rematch could possibly loom with second-ranked Knox West (10-1) in the semifinals.
For coach Crawford, Friday’s game is just another chance for his team to go to work on the field, with the chance to wear their “home” blue jerseys again only two wins away.
“Everyone says that Rhea-Cleveland used to be a great rivalry, but just from my observations in the past year it appears to me that Rhea is more excited to play us than we are to play them,” Crawford said.
“It’s the second round of the playoffs, how can you not be excited? We want to beat them, but we want to beat everyone we play. We would like to wear our blue jerseys again, and if we get to Cookeville (for the state championship game), we’ll get to do that.”