It comes down to the ground.
The Three Rivers Conference football title could be decided tonight as Elizabethton travels to take on Sullivan North in a battle of ground-oriented teams. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
The Cyclones are 1-0 in league play and 2-2 overall while the Raiders are undefeated (1-0, 4-0).
In other Three Rivers games, Unicoi County visits Happy Valley and Johnson County plays host to Sullivan East.
In the Class A Mountain East Conference, Hampton gets a forfeit win because of the low number of players for Hancock County, Unaka is at Cloudland, and North Greene travels to play Cosby.
In the Blue Ridge Conference, Greeneville is at South Greene, Grainger visits Chuckey-Doak, and West Greene is at home for Cumberland Gap.
Elizabethton gets 80 percent of its yardage on the ground while North is at 78 percent. So whichever team can stop the run the best will likely win.
“Every week we’ve done a good job shutting people’s running game down,” said Elizabethton head coach Shawn Witten. “There is something special about our defense. They are really playing well.”
The Cyclones are coming off back-to-back shutouts of Happy Valley and Tuscola, N.C. However, the Raiders have rushed for 1,133 yards in four games and present problems with quarterback Cory Rowe teaming up with running backs Kairi Thompson and Jacob Jasper.
Rowe is especially important to North’s offense.
“He’s been the difference-maker for them,” said Witten. “They’ve had good backs and speed, and good linemen, but Rowe is the one who hurt us last year.”
Witten said the Cyclones will try to be successful on first-down defense.
“We can’t let them be second-and-five or second-and-three,” said Witten. “The key for us is (linebacker) Luke Blanton. He has been making a lot of plays. He has gotten into the backfield a lot.”
The Cyclones can run it, too, and boast the area’s leading rusher in Ethan Thomas, who has gained 641 yards in four games.
“Both teams will have limited possessions,” said Witten. “Both teams want to control the ball. We can’t have three and outs. We’ve got to make the most of our possessions.”
The Cyclones could have more of a threat of throwing with sophomore quarterback Caleb Armstrong being cleared to play. Caleb Bailey will still be the starter, but Armstrong is available.
“A lot of it has to do with the way Caleb (Bailey) plays,” said Witten.
Witten said the Raiders have the Cyclones’ attention.
“(Raiders’ head coach) Robbie Norris has done a good job,” said Witten. “He is highly respected. They got our attention with the way they beat us last year.”
Unicoi County (0-1, 2-2) at Happy Valley (0-1, 1-3) — The Warriors have won four straight in this series, and are playing at home.
However, the Blue Devils have the capability of moving the football and scoring some points. This one should be quite a battle.
Sullivan East (0-1, 0-3) at Johnson County (1-0, 2-1) — The Longhorns appear to be on their way to a turnaround season after last year’s winless struggle.
The Patriots won 40-6 last season, ending a six-game winning streak in the series for Johnson County.
Longhorns’ running back Patrick South has 369 yards rushing in three games.
Unaka (0-1, 0-4) at Cloudland (1-0 2-1) — It should be a fairly easy time for the offensively rich Highlanders, but the Rangers will take the rivalry seriously.
Unaka has won two of the last three meetings, but Cloudland racked up 600 yards rushing in a win two weeks ago over Hancock County.
Greeneville (0-0, 1-2) at South Greene (0-1, 1-3) — This is the time of year when the Greene Devils usually turn on the offensive fireworks.
In the last three seasons, beginning in game No. 4, Greeneville has scored over 40 points 29 times in 36 games. Five of those seven under-40 games came in the playoffs.