No coach wants his team looking ahead, but the honest measure of tonight’s game is this: It is basically a state semifinal football contest.
With No. 1-ranked and seemingly untouchable Knox Fulton almost surely waiting for the winner, Elizabethton will travel to take on Greeneville in the second round of the TSSAA Class 4A playoffs.
“I would think it is (a semifinal-type game) given both teams’ histories,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten. “I think the atmosphere will be that way. We’ve got to really do our jobs and not let Greeneville run away.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 o’clock at Burley Stadium.
In another Class 4A contest, Sullivan South travels to take on Fulton.
The Cyclones are 10-1, having won nine straight games since a 1-yard loss to Science Hill. Elizabethton reached the Class 3A semifinals three times in the last four years before bumping up a notch.
Greeneville (11-0) is undefeated, and the Greene Devils reached the Class 4A state championship game three years in row. They won back-to-back titles in 2010-11.
This used to be one of the better rivalries in the area, and the teams have matched up in the postseason. The most memorable one came famously in 1998 when current Dallas Cowboys star Jason Witten helped the Cyclones avenge a 28-6 regular season loss with a dominant 43-14 victory.
More recently Greeneville beat the Cyclones 35-26 in 2008, which was Shawn Witten’s first postseason game as a coach. Since then, Witten’s teams have a record of 11-4 in the playoffs.
Greeneville head coach Caine Ballard’s teams have gone 16-2 over the last five years.
It has been a while since they played a really big game, so tonight is a renewal of the once-heated rivalry.
“I think it’s great,” said Ballard. “It’s two of the better teams in Northeast Tennessee, certainly over the last few years, and two of the most successful teams — especially at playoff time.
“The community is excited, and this is what November football is supposed to be about. It should be awesome for the players.”
Elizabethton’s defensive focus will be on Greeneville quarterback Zach Finchum. The senior has accounted for 2,547 yards of offense and 38 touchdowns. He has thrown 27 touchdown passes with only two interceptions.
But Finchum is only part of the problem.
“Trevor Wright and Hays Culbreth are two guys on the outside with the ability to go vertical and make plays,” said Witten. “And they make plays on special teams. They aren’t just dangerous at wide receiver, or Wright at free safety. They are dangerous in the kicking game as well.”
Wright has caught 26 passes for 621 yards and eight touchdowns while Culbreth has totaled 25 receptions for 606 yards and 11 scores.
On the ground, three players have double-digit touchdowns led by Finchum (11) and Desmond Dabbs (11). Quan Wilson has 10 scores.
Greeneville’s defensive focus will be on Ethan Thomas, who has rushed for 1,653 yards and totaled 20 touchdowns. The junior has 4,086 yards rushing in his career.
“Certainly Thomas has our attention,” said Ballard. “I like their quarterback (Caleb Bailey), too. I think he’s a tough kid, and a good football player.
“We will probably play them pretty squared up. We can’t rely on just expecting Thomas. They have other weapons.”
Witten said Bailey will have to make some plays for the Cyclones to have a shot at the win.
“They are a stout defense that is so great at stopping the run and pass,” said Witten. “Caleb will have to make some critical throws, some one-on-one matchup throws.”
But the Cyclones still need to run the ball.
“You try to find a matchup and find a weakness, but there are none of those,” said Witten. “It comes down to our offensive line has to do a good enough job. We’ve got to get Ethan to the second level.”
Sullivan South (10-1) at Knox Fulton (11-0) — It’s a daunting task for the Rebels, no doubt.
Fulton is averaging more points per game (62.4) than it has allowed all season (57). The Falcons boast a pair of major-college studs in tailback Daryl Rollins-Davis and all-purpose athlete Xavier Hawks. Also, quarterback Penny Smith is quite a threat.
One way to slow the Falcons down is a sturdy ground game, so Rebels quarterback Dylan Wieger — who has thrown for 2,128 yards with 30 touchdown passes this season — may have to keep it on the ground more and utilize running back Blake Christian.
All things considered, the Rebels are still about a four-touchdown underdog.