After three months of battling it out on the gridiron, the next five weeks will determine which teams live on forever in history as state champions.
For West Lincoln, however, the Rebels have an opportunity to make history tonight. The Rebels are on the road at Ashe County, and if West Lincoln can come back down the mountain with a victory in tow, it would be the first for the program.
Many thought last year’s team was among the best West Lincoln has ever fielded, but those Rebels ran into a buzzsaw in Shelby, the eventual state champions, in the first round. This year’s team might be a notch below the 2018 squad, but Ashe County isn’t Shelby, and the Rebels have the pieces to pull an upset over the Huskies
The Rebels and Huskies are similar in that both teams can light up the scoreboard, but they go about in different ways.
West Lincoln, of course, features a relentless rushing attack led by senior Canon Bridges, who put together a monster season with 1,800 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns.
While Bridges is the workhorse, with more than 200 carries this season, fellow senior Xander Pendergrass is the big-play back. Pendergrass averages nearly 9 yards per carry, racking up 1,082 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
Conversely, Ashe County struggles defensively, allowing more than 30 points per game this season. The Huskies were gashed by the run en route to an 0-3 start to the season, allowing 233 yards to Avery County before giving up 480 yards and 363 yards against powerhouses Watauga and Hibriten, respectively.
Despite a less-than-stellar defense, the Huskies are conference champions because of an offense loaded with weapons. Ashe County throws the ball roughly two-thirds of the time, and junior quarterback Dawson Cox can sling it.
Cox is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, totaling more than 3,200 yards through the air with 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His favorite target is junior receiver Austin Poe, who’s hauled in 75 catches for 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
The Rebels have plenty of speed on the outside at cornerback in Pendergrass and Hunter Leonhardt, while safety Mason Huitt ranked among the top ballhawks in the South Fork 2A with 5 interceptions this season. West Lincoln did a tremendous job holding the dynamic duo of Ethan Rhodes and Dylan Abernethy in check in an October win over Maiden.
The Rebels were carved up by East Lincoln’s Justin Barnett, however, who faced very little pressure in the pocket en route to 281 yards and 3 touchdowns two weeks ago. West Lincoln’s pass rush must make Cox uncomfortable, and it all starts with Bridges, who tied for the South Fork 2A lead with 8 sacks from his outside linebacker position.
R-S Central at North Lincoln
The Knights are firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball, riding a 10-game winning streak into tonight’s home game against R-S Central.
The Hilltoppers, on the other hand, have lost three in a row and are one of just two teams in the 2AA West bracket with more losses than wins. North Lincoln head coach Nick Bazzle won’t let his team take R-S Central lightly, however, as the Hilltoppers are nothing if not battle tested after playing the likes of Shelby, Burns and Chase in the Southwestern 2A conference.
It’ll be like looking in the mirror for North Lincoln tonight, with R-S Central running an option offense similar to what the Knights employ.
Sophomore quarterback Jaiden Coston leads the R-S Central rushing attack with 1,006 yards and 10 touchdowns on 190 carries. The Hilltoppers also boast a pair of big, bruising backs in sophomores Xavier Toms and Ken Hines III, who have combined for nearly 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns.
While R-S Central features some impressive young talent, North Lincoln is led by three seniors who have executed Bazzle’s triple-option offense to perfection since the return of quarterback Landon Beard against East Lincoln Oct. 11.
North Lincoln’s offense doesn’t cater to gaudy passing numbers, but Beard has done a fantastic job of picking his spots, throwing 6 touchdowns to just 1 interception after being picked off nine times a year ago.
The Knights have speed on the edge in senior running backs Jake Soorus and Sam Brady, each of whom average a first down every time they touch the ball, combining for 18 touchdowns as well. Sophomore fullback Ty Williams is the workhorse, however, and he’s been stellar, leading the team with 938 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
While the offenses are remarkably similar, the difference in this game can be found on the defensive side of the ball.
North Lincoln’s defense has been downright suffocating, allowing fewer than 10 points per game. That number was even lower in conference play, with the Knights allowing just 48 points in seven contests.
East Lincoln at Burns
The Mustangs drew the short straw having to face the Burns Bulldogs in the first round. Burns isn’t your typical No. 6 seed, boasting a 9-2 record, having only lost to top-seeded Shelby and Kings Mountain, a 3A power.
The Bulldogs are a run-heavy team, and are led by senior running back Kujuan Pryor, who averages better than 10 yards per carry with 1,447 yards and 16 touchdowns on the season. The Mustangs did as good a job as anyone at containing West Lincoln’s Canon Bridges, and will need a similar performance defensively tonight.
While Burns hasn’t shown many weaknesses, their secondary was exploited in their losses. East Lincoln senior quarterback Justin Barnett has had a penchant for the big play, averaging 16 yards per completion, but he’ll have to take care of the football to keep it close.