When it comes to Class 4A football, Elizabethton and Greeneville command quite a bit of respect in statewide conversations.
And they’ve earned it, with the Greene Devils winning two straight state titles before Elizabethton won last year.
So it should come as little surprise these teams are meeting for the second straight season in the state quarterfinals. The TSSAA playoff contest is set for kickoff at 7 p.m. on Friday at Citizens Bank Stadium in Elizabethton.
“It brings the best out of both schools and both teams,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten. “We have so much respect for Greeneville, and how hard they work. It’s exciting, and it will be a great matchup.”
The Cyclones enter with a record of 12-0 and a 27-game winning streak. Greeneville comes in with a mark of 9-3. Included in the Greene Devils’ losses was a 44-10 setback against Elizabethton in Week 9.
“I think the score of the first game was no indication of how close the game really was,” Witten said.
The Cyclones held Greeneville to a field goal with 1:13 left before halftime, tying the game at 10-10. But Parker Hughes returned the kickoff to the 48-yard line.
Bryson Rollins later hit Hughes with a 19-yard pass that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Rollins with 9.3 seconds left before halftime, giving the Cyclones the momentum with a 16-10 lead. Elizabethton outscored Greeneville 28-0 in the second half.
Greene Devils head coach Eddie Spradlen said his team needs to make the rematch a four-quarter game.
“Last time we played, it was a battle in the first half,” Spradlen said. “A few plays did not go our way in the second half and they built a good lead. We have to make the plays we did not make in the first game. We learned a lot from that game, which has helped us continue to improve from week to week.
“This game will be a tremendous challenge for our football team. It is a big-time game for Northeast Tennessee.”
Witten said being true to the plan is important.
“In this game you have to have patience,” he said. “It’s the key. This game won’t be decided in the first or second quarter. It will be a complete 48-minute game. We have to stick to the game plan and stay the course.
“We can’t have mental errors and penalties. It’s about the team that can make plays when you’re tired and fatigued.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Elizabethton ran away from East Hamilton in a 35-7 second-round decision. The Cyclones started strong, building a 28-0 halftime edge and cruising to the finish.
Greeneville stayed in the playoff hunt with a 28-24 win over Anderson County. The Greene Devils got the ball back, down three points with 2:47 left on the clock. They drove 80 yards in 11 plays with an 11-yard pass from Brady Quillen to Adjatay Dabbs providing the winning score.
“The matchup with Greeneville, in general you get better by playing them,” Witten said. “You know what you get physically. Line of scrimmage plays are really difficult.”
Witten said Greeneville has plenty of speed, starting with running back Mason Gudger, who has gained 812 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on the season.
“He’s a difference maker,” Witten said. “Every time he touches the ball he has the ability to go the distance. He’s a tough back and his feet never stop.”
Spradlen said his team must gain yards on the ground.
“We have to be able to run the football,” he said. “We have to move the football down the field and keep their explosive offense off the field.”
Quillen, who took over early in the season when Drew Gregg went down with an injury, has thrown for 874 yards on the season with 11 touchdowns.
“Quillen has a lot more games under his belt now,” Witten said.
Dabbs has 442 receiving yards with six scores. Jaden Stevenson has 354 yards receiving with seven touchdowns.
Elizabethton is led by its two Class 4A Mr. Football finalists, Rollins and quarterback and Hughes.
Rollins has racked up 2,685 total yards with 1,828 through the air and 27 touchdown tosses. He has 17 rushing scores.
Hughes has 1,212 yards receiving, and his 18 touchdown receptions lead the state. It is the 11th highest single-season total of all time. Hughes is also in the No. 10 spot with his 19 scoring catches last year.
He is also No. 4 in Tennessee history with 49 career receiving touchdowns, and No. 10 with 2,950 career yards.
The senior receiver and strong safety has 1,746 all-purpose yards this season with 23 total touchdowns, moving in as a part-time running back and becoming a threat there as well. He had a 94-yard touchdown run in the win over East Hamilton.
Cyclones’ running back Nate Stephens, who missed last week, will return to the lineup. He has 821 yards rushing with 13 scores.
This is the third state quarterfinal matchup in a rivalry that is fast approaching its 100th birthday. The first meeting was in 1924.
These teams battled in the Class 4A state quarterfinals in 1998 with Elizabethton winning 43-14 behind Jason Witten and Shawn Witten.
They met again last year with the Cyclones earning a 24-13 victory.
Elizabethton leads the all-time series by a count of 41-33-2, and has won the last three meetings.