It probably comes down to one thing: Can Elizabethton run the football on Sullivan South’s stingy defense?
The Cyclones will travel to Kingsport to take on the Rebels with the Three Rivers Conference football title on the line. Kickoff is scheduled for tonight at 7:30.
Elizabethton enters with a record of 5-0 in league play and 8-1 overall. Its lone loss was in Week 1 against Science Hill, a game where Cyclones’ star running back Ethan Thomas was tackled one yard short of the end zone on the final play of a 40-35 decision.
Since then, no team has come within three touchdowns of the Cyclones.
South enters with a record of 5-0 in the conference and 9-0 overall. The Rebels escaped a couple of tough challenges against Cherokee and Tennessee High to open the season, but no team has come within four touchdowns of the Rebels since then.
South spent most of the season stuffing the run, but Johnson County did clip the Rebels for 258 yards last week — which was 215 yards more than South’s previous average.
With Thomas back at full strength after missing a pair of games with an injury, the Cyclones figure to test South’s ground fortitude. And the Rebels figure to stack the box and make Elizabethton quarterbacks Caleb Bailey and Caleb Armstrong put the ball in the air.
“There’s no doubt they will load the box,” said Elizabethton head coach Shawn Witten. “I definitely think the key for us is our quarterbacks and receivers making enough plays outside to get them to back off of us.
“I think the two-quarterback system has worked for us. They have to understand they don’t have to win it for us. They just have to play good and play solid. Bailey had a big game a year ago against South and really came through for us.”
Rebels coach Sam Haynie said his team needs to do a good job at the line of scrimmage.
“We’ve got to play good gap control, and be physical at the line of scrimmage,”said Haynie. “When we have the opportunity, we have to tackle well.”
South has three standouts on defense in linebackers Jacob Strickler and Kyle Bond along with lineman Cody Shipley.
“Bond and Strickler are very explosive players,” said Haynie. “They understand what we’re trying to do defensively. And Cody has been big in the development of the defense.”
Witten said Stickler is dangerous.
“He’s kind of the X factor on their defense,” said Witten.
Haynie said all three will need to do well against Thomas, who enters the game with 1,321 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns despite missing two games.
“He’s tough to get down,” said Haynie. “He’s the total package in terms of a back.”
Meanwhile, Elizabethton’s defense will have its hands full with a red-hot quarterback. Junior Dylan Wieger has 24 scoring strikes on the season, and has totaled 11 touchdown passes in the last two weeks. He hit five against Sullivan North to tie the school record, and then connected on six against Johnson County to break it.
“He is the big-play factor,” said Witten. “And one thing you notice on film is their receivers make a lot of unbelievable catches. We’ve got to do a good job of disguising coverage. I think they make you prepare to cover the entire football field.”
Wieger has thrown for 1,628 yards, and rushed for 790. He is looking much like the Rebels’ long line of standout quarterbacks.
“With his numbers and the way he has developed it’s right in there with the players we’ve had in the past,” said Haynie.
Weiger’s favorite receiver is Evan Headrick, who has 37 catches for 513 yards and has scored 10 touchdowns.
Haynie said he expects the Cyclones to be prepared on defense.
“Coach (Stan) Ogg does as good of a job with the defense as any coach around here,” said Haynie. “He does a good job mixing up looks, and doesn’t let you get comfortable. He takes away what you do best, and forces you into something you don’t like.”
Overall, Haynie said he sees a tight battle.
“I think it’s two good football teams who are pretty evenly matched,” he said. “When it comes to high school kids, it comes down to who makes the least mistakes — whether it’s turnovers, penalties or big plays.”
Witten said the Cyclones will have to play at least as good as they did against Tennessee High in a 35-13 victory.
“Anything less than the performance in Bristol will not be good enough,” said Witten. “We’ve got to be solid on both sides of the ball.”