There was one way to beat No. 1-ranked and undefeated Greeneville.
And Elizabethton did it over and over and over again.
Don’t fall for the misguided notion this was all quarterback Bryson Rollins — although it’s understandable to think that way after witnessing 38 carries for 200 yards. But the story of this game was the oldest trick in the book: beating the opponent at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Two-time defending state champion Elizabethton knocked off the fast and dangerous Greene Devils 13-7 in the Class 4A state quarterfinals by winning the grudge match that happened milliseconds after every snap. And they did it against a Greeneville team known for its physicality.
“When it comes to the playoffs, it’s won up front,” said Cyclones’ lineman Trenton Taylor. “The whole message this week was, do not get bullied.”
Elizabethton did it on offense, authoring long drive after long drive and eating precious seconds off the clock. The Cyclones weren’t trying to break 60-yard plays. They were trying to get five yards at a time. And it’s no coincidence Rollins averaged almost exactly five yards per attempt.
“We knew we had to match their physicality,” said Cyclones’ assistant Jeff Pierce. “We preached all week: We’re not looking for 20-yard runs, 30-yard runs or 40-yard runs. We want to get five yards. So our theme from day one this week in preparation was, ‘Fight for Five.’ We wanted to be solid and be physical.”
Greeneville scored first, but Elizabethton answered with an 80-yard, 15-play drive to tie the game late in the first half. They had an 11-play, 64-yard drive to take a 13-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But the crown jewel was the final drive.
With everything on the line, having stopped Greeneville on downs in the red zone, and Greeneville knowing this was the final chance to end the Cyclones’ reign, Elizabethton snapped the ball to Rollins and he selected a menu of options like a buffet at Golden Corral. Right for four yards, left for three, middle for six, around the end for a handful. Every choice was good.
The game basically ended on fourth and two when Greeneville jumped offsides. But there was likely an underlying reason for the mistake. The Greene Devils knew they hadn’t stopped Elizabethton more than a few times in 47 minutes. Somebody had to do something extraordinary as the Cyclones sent their heavy package onto the field.
But for all of the offensive greatness, don’t sleep on what the defense pulled off. In the first meeting, Mason Gudger rushed for 171 yards and scored five touchdowns. He was a home run waiting to happen.
But on this night, some 46 days later, Gudger was limited to a few singles and maybe a double or two. He finished with 15 carries for 76 yards and no scores.
The limited number of carries was significant, and it was because the Cyclones forced Greeneville into passing situations. Greeneville is deadly when it wants to pass, but more human when it needs to pass.
Elizabethton defended the pass, kept the receivers in front, and allowed maybe two or three big plays.
Taylor, who also played a key role on the defensive line, said there were two main parts to the win: physicality and desire.
“It was a little bit of both,” he said. “It just takes so much physicality, but at the end, technique wins ballgames.”
What happens next week in the semifinals remains to be seen. But this was a masterpiece painted by players who changed the perspective of their artwork and brought “behind the scenes” to the forefront.