DENVER –– Although not with flying colors, East Lincoln passed its first two tests of the state playoffs.
It’s next opponent can flat out fly, and will test it even more.
The third-seeded Mustangs (9-4) make their first road trip in the state playoffs in more than two years today when they travel to speedy No. 2 Monroe (11-2) for a third round game in the NCHSAA state 2AA playoffs.
The Redhawks have a certain trait that has them on an eight-game winning streak, each one coming relatively easy, and that’s speed.
Monroe is so quick, that ninth-year East Lincoln head coach Mike Byus came up with his own unique way to describe it.
“There’s fast, and there’s faaast,” he said. “Some people are fast, and that’s f-a-s-t. These cats are faaast, and that’s f-a-a-a-s-t. Everywhere, they’re all fast; team speed’s out the roof.”
Byus said the Redhawks, who beat West Stokes 34-15 last week to advance and are averaging nearly 35 points per game, will be one of the toughest tests of the season for his league-leading defense.
According to statistics on Maxpreps.com (which do not include last week’s game), Monroe enters tonight averaging 347.9 yards of total offense –– 256.3 rushing –– per game, making it the second-best offense statistically behind Bunker Hill that East Lincoln has seen since conference play began.
“Obviously we have to execute well and play pretty good team defense. We’ve managed to play pretty good team defense most of the year, and they’re going to test that,” Byus said. “You’re going to have to have somebody setting the edge, you’re going to have to have somebody over the top, you’re going to have somebody coming inside on every down. And the one down that you don’t (do those things) they’re going to hit that seam and be off to the races.”
Where East Lincoln runs a more balanced offensive attack –– 2,788 total yards rushing to 2,259 yards passing –– the Redhawks get more than 70 percent of their offense from the run.
The majority of Monroe’s 3,332 total rushing yards come from three running backs: Chase Bryum (1,173 total yards, 16 touchdowns), Tre’Shun Wynn (818 total yards, 12 TDs) and Julius Stradford (640 total yards, five TDs).
They’ll have to run against a defense that is allowing just 115.3 yards rushing a night.
“We’ve just got to stop their running game and don’t let their passes get behind us,” East Lincoln sophomore kicker and defensive back Blake Strupp said. “We’ve just got to work as a team and all work to the ball.”
Byus feels lucky to still be playing, considering his team turned it over four times –– all in the second quarter –– in last week’s 42-14 win over Maiden.
But the Blue Devils committed five turnovers, including four interceptions thrown by quarterback Jake McRee, one that was returned 14 yards by Justin Rhodes for a score.
East Lincoln can’t live on the edge like that again this deep into the playoffs.
“Offensively, we’ve got to do what you do in any big game and that’s limit your turnovers, unlike last Friday,” Byus said. “By all rights we should be done. You just can’t do that in the playoffs.”
Strupp saw his team’s struggles in a different light.
“It was a lack of team effort. I don’t think we were all there and connected at the beginning of the game. After halftime we finally got into each other’s heads and finally got on the right page to work as a team and keep moving on in the playoffs.”
The last time the Mustangs played a state playoff game away from home was on Nov. 4, 2011. They lost at Boonville Starmount 21-13.
Byus knows the Redhawks are going to make plays. He also knows his team has a sophomore quarterback in Chazz Surratt who finished the regular season with more total offensive yards (3,435) than Lincolnton, Newton-Conover and West Caldwell had as a team.
“They’re going to make plays,” Byus said. “We’re just going to have to be patient and hope we can contain most of their big plays, and make some plays of our own.”