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Mountain Pine tough to slow down

by Jason Avery | December 1, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

What do you get when you have a mobile quarterback coupled with two outstanding running backs who are also adept at catching passes?

The answer is the most dynamic offense in eight-man football.

Heading into Thursday’s 2A 8-Man state championship game against Strong, Mountain Pine has scored 550 points, a whopping 174 points ahead of the Bulldogs, who have scored the second-most points of all eight-man teams.

So what makes them so prolific?

For Strong coach Sirl Wright, it’s the variety of ways they can attack you out of the Wing-T and their special teams being able to get the offense right back on the field.

“They’re based out of a Wing-T concept, but they branch it out and go into multiple formations,” Wright said. “From spread offense to pro offense, they have a variable offense. They kick onside or pooch kick every time, so a lot of times, they kept getting it back, and it makes it easier to score.”

The Red Devils are guided by sophomore quarterback Jonah Wilburn, who has completed just under 59 percent of his passes for 1,358 yards with 21 touchdowns and three interceptions.

He can also run the ball when needed, tallying 8.6 yards per carry.

“He’s a competitor for one thing and that’s what makes him tough,” Mountain Pine coach Sam Counce said. “He doesn’t take losing or failure very well. He works hard to make sure that he’s prepared. He understands football. He’s been playing since he was a little guy. He’s not a real big guy now, but he understands what we’re trying to do and him and coach (Joey) Alderman really complement each other on what they understand about each other.”

Wilburn threw for 195 yards and four scores against the Bulldogs in their first meeting.

“He’s a smaller quarterback. He’s not the traditional quarterback as far as 6-3 and up,” Wright said. “He’s not fast, but he’s mobile enough to get out of trouble.”

Balance has been critical to the success of the Red Devils.

Mountain Pine has totaled 2,893 yards rushing as a team, yet no one has eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier.

However, that could change with junior Keelan Dobbins just 96 yards away from the mark. Fellow junior Isaiah Miles has 830 yards this season, and the Red Devils have five players total with over 300 yards on the ground.

Both are great receivers as well.

Dobbins has 19 catches for 508 yards, good for a whopping 26.7 yards per catch.

Miles has been even better, averaging 28.6 yards per catch thanks to racking up 458 yards on just 16 catches.

Each has seven touchdowns receiving.

“It’s a formidable dynamic duo that’s pretty much their bread and butter,” Wright said. “If you stop them, you stop Mountain Pine, but as you can see, many teams have failed at stopping them. We did a good job of containing them, but we had a couple of errors we made defensively where we allowed them to outflank us. If they get a step or two, it’s hard to catch up with them.”

Between them, Dobbins and Miles have scored a combined 47 touchdowns this year.

“We base out of the Wing-T and we try to run the ball because we’ve got two pretty good running backs,” Counce said. “The thing about those guys is they complement each other real well. One of them is real patient and one of them hits the hole real fast.

“It’s hard for defenses to kind of size that up and get into a rhythm against them. I think that really helps us. Then we have Jonah Wilburn, and he can get rid of the ball pretty quick back there at quarterback. We can connect like that when we need to. We just try to run the ball. When you’ve got guys like that, that’s what we hang our hat on.”

But while Dobbins and Miles have done quite a bit of damage, the Red Devils have several other weapons at their disposal.

Senior Brice Langley has 396 yards and five touchdowns on the ground with junior Dayjon Matlock adding 358 rushing yards with six scores.

“He’s our fullback and his stats don’t look that good, but he’s still a pretty good force with those two guys,” Counce said of Matlock.

“We can stick him in there and he can pop one every now and then inside just because of those two guys.”

Junior Ty Ventress has made the most of his eight catches with five going for touchdowns. Fellow junior Jayden Walker has caught 10 passes for 96 yards with a touchdown and James Glasco, also a junior, has seven catches for 144 yards.

“Ty Ventress is a special kid for us. He’s a move-in and he’s never played football before. Basketball was his sport,” Counce said. “He’s really enjoyed it, and to me, that’s what eight-man does to a small community. It makes those kids transition from basketball to football and have a good time. During basketball season, Isaiah and Keelan will be doing the same thing on the court. They’re going to be shining over there. We’re lucky. We’re blessed with the kids we have right now.”

In their first meeting, Strong downed Mountain Pine 48-30 with Strong’s defense holding the Red Devils to 302 yards of total offense, which was their third lowest of the season.

Now the Bulldogs are tasked with having to slow down the Red Devils for a second time with a state title at stake.

“I call it football IQ,” Wright said of preparing for the Red Devils’ attack. “The more you understand the rules of football and understand what your opponent is trying to do to you, it makes it easier for you to play against them and have more confidence to play against them.

“Typically to try and slow down Mountain Pine, your team has to think a little bit more rather than react.

“Some teams just run 20 plays at you and they try to be experts at those particular things whereas Mountain Pine goes with the approach of just a variable of things. They try to do many things to try and make you think, and once you make a mistake, they’ll exploit that.”

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