ELIZABETHTON — Consider it established as Elizabethton heads into its biggest game of the season: The Cyclones are more than just Ethan Thomas.
After sitting out a pair of games with injury, Thomas returned in his usual fashion with 156 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a 42-7 whipping of Unicoi County on Friday night at Rider Field.
This time, Thomas was joined in the 100-yard club by backup quarterback Caleb Armstrong (114 yards rushing) and starting signal-caller Caleb Bailey added 92 yards rushing as the Cyclones churned out 402 yards on 47 attempts.
“(The Blue Devils) were keying on Ethan and there were some huge holes on the back side,” said Armstrong. “It was wide open and that made our job easier. We couldn’t have asked for any bigger holes from the line.”
Bailey said the quarterback keepers have gotten more effective as the season has gone along.
“We’ve been working on it really all year,” said Bailey, who also threw for 88 yards, including a pair of scoring strikes to fullback Jacob Woodby.
Cyclones head coach Shawn Witten said the Cyclones leaned on their quarterbacks while Thomas was recovering from injury.
“The last couple of weeks we opened up the playbook, and our quarterbacks have grown up,” said Witten. “We’ve tried to work different sets and formations.”
Elizabethton improved to 5-0 in the Three Rivers Conference and 8-1 overall. The Cyclones will meet Sullivan South (5-0, 9-0) for the league title next Friday in Kingsport.
“We did what we needed to do: win and put ourselves back in the championship game,” said Witten.
It was a little sluggish early, especially for Thomas. The junior running back couldn’t get in much of a groove, and the Cyclones’ first drive stalled at the Blue Devils’ 3-yard line when a fourth-and-goal play came up short.
Bailey later had runs of 16 and 13 yards to set up his own 1-yard scoring run for a 7-0 advantage.
“One TD in the first quarter, that’s not us,” said Bailey. “We put up 28 points in the second quarter, and that’s more like Cyclones’ football.”
Thomas took a handoff on fourth-and-one early in the second quarter, and ripped it for a 15-yard touchdown to make it 14-0. On the Cyclones’ next possession, Thomas scored on fourth down again, this time from six yards out.
Elizabethton then recovered an onside kick, getting the ball at Unicoi’s 42-yard line. Eight plays later, Bailey found Woodby wide open over the middle for a 15-yard scoring strike.
Unicoi drove for a first and goal at Elizabethton’s 6-yard line — getting a 42-yard pass from Lucas Hensley to Eli Gillis and a 36-yard run from Luke Fronckoski — but the drive stalled at the five.
Elizabethton then went 95 yards in just over a minute to score on Thomas’ 31-yard run with 36 seconds left before halftime.
Unicoi’s defense accounted for its lone score. Gillis picked off a pass at his own 5-yard line, and showed significant speed while racing down the sideline for a 95-yard touchdown.
Elizabethton answered, going 76 yards in nine plays. Bailey hit Woodby with a sideline pass, and the senior romped 33 yards into the end zone.
Cyclones’ place-kicker Logan Birchfield made all six of his extra-point attempts, giving him 52 straight for the season. He has 53 consecutive kicks dating back to last season, putting him in a tie for fourth place on the state’s all-time list.
Fronckoski finished with 78 yards on 15 carries before leaving in the fourth quarter with an injury.