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Strong set to host defending champions

by Jason Avery | October 13, 2021 at 9:45 p.m.

When Strong and Mountain Pine meet for their showdown on Friday night, it will be a case of the irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

The Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0) host the Red Devils (4-2, 3-0) with first place in the 8-Man South on the line.

Game time is set for 6 p.m. at Jerry Burson Field.

The Red Devils, who won the eight-man title a year ago, have scored the most points among 2A schools and rank second behind Marshall in that category among all teams, while the Bulldogs have allowed the fewest points of any team in the eight-man ranks.

For Strong coach Sirl Wright, this game is not only for first place in the conference, it’s also a test to see where the Bulldogs stand against the defending champions.

“They’re the defending champions, and the one way to see if you’re big and bad is to go through the champion and see how tough you are,” Wright said.

Just how prolific have the Red Devils been?

Last week against Spring Hill, Mountain Pine had 670 yards of total offense, including 439 yards rushing.

Against Woodlawn, the Red Devils had 554 yards of total offense with 434 of those yards coming on the ground.

The Red Devils’ offense is paced by a pair of running backs who are a threat to score every time they touch the ball.

Junior Isaiah Miles had a monster game in last week’s 62-54 win over Spring Hill, racking up 224 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 18 carries.

Against Woodlawn, Miles had 154 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries while also catching 3 passes for 120 yards with 2 touchdowns.

Fellow junior Keelan Dobbins accounted for 155 yards rushing and receiving last week.

Dobbins also rushed for 153 yards and 4 scores on just 13 carries in the Red Devils’ win over Woodlawn three weeks ago.

“They’ve run a carousel of backs and they’ve got two dynamic backs,” Wright said. “When things get tough, they lead them. We have to watch out for them. Those two guys are good skill players.

“They stay in the backfield together. Sometimes they’ll run a wildcat set, sometimes they just get a direct handoff and sometimes they’ll even be a receiver. We’ve got to keep them contained and continue to play good defense and tackle.”

Wright said the Bulldogs are familiar with the Red Devils’ approach on offense due to playing Marvell earlier this season.

“We’ve seen it before with Marvell,” Wright said. “They had a carousel of backs that they switched out. There wasn’t a rhythm to it. It was just these couple of guys would get two or three carries, then they would switch to another couple of other guys or one person would go out.

“They would shift in and out. It’s not predictable, it’s just at the discretion of the coach.”

In addition to Miles and Dobbins, Mountain Pine is guided by sophomore quarterback Jonah Wilburn, who was 8-of-13 through the air last week for 151 yards with 2 touchdowns.

Against Episcopal Collegiate earlier this season, Wilburn threw for a 156 yards.

He also is a threat to run the ball having rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown against Marshall.

The Bulldogs counter with junior LaQuincy Shelton at quarterback with seniors Treveon Daniels and Byron Maze as a three-headed monster that have carried the Bulldogs in their perfect start.

In their last outing two weeks ago against Brinkley, Shelton threw three touchdown passes with two going to Maze. The junior also ran for a score, and one of his touchdown passes to Maze came on what could’ve been a disastrous play for Strong. Shelton had to retrieve a bad snap, but once he was able to get the ball, he found an open Maze for a touchdown.

“He really improvised, and he’s been growing and learning each year,” Wright said. “That’s what I’m really happy with with all of the kids. Their football IQ is increasing day by day. They’re understanding concepts. When I first got here, they didn’t understand concepts.

“Now they are starting to understand concepts. He improvised on that bad snap and just looked up and saw Maze standing back there by himself. He just flung it up in the air and all of the Brinkley guys were chasing him after the ball, but he had enough quick wits to pick it up and do a quick throw and score the touchdown off it. It was pretty exciting for him to have that awareness. Maze just brings it every day as far as offense and defense. They’re seasoned leaders.”

Wright believes the matchup is one of skill against skill.

“I look at it as far as matchups,” Wright said. “Then you look at how you can stop the matchups that they are going to present against us and then also look at the matchups that we can try to exploit against them. That’s the outlook I try to look at.”

Having won the eight-man crown last year, the Red Devils are no strangers to the big stage, but playing in big games is something new for the Bulldogs, who struggled in 11-man football in recent years thanks to low numbers.

Wright said his team will be ready to go and he credited the Red Devils for their success and how they’ve handled that success as defending champions.

“They’re locking in,” Wright said. “It’s kind of like they’ve been at the top, and when you’re at the top, you’re a target for everybody to shoot at. We’re a newbie to the eight-man circuit. We’re kind of the new kid on the block, and we’re starting to have a reputation for ourselves as far as being on the better end of eight-man teams in the league, so what we’ve got to do is just basically see how tough we are to the challenge that they’re going to present to us on Friday night.”

One matter to watch for Strong is senior Caneilus Betters, who scored in the win over Brinkley two weeks ago.

“Betters has been battling an ankle injury,” Wright said. “He was still about 80 percent, but he had enough gas to put the pedal to the metal and score his touchdown on a sweep.

“The thing about him being out was that it helped us become stronger because I always emphasize you’re as strong as your weakest link, and when he went out, some other guys stepped up while he was out. Since he’s coming back, it makes us more versatile. They’ve got to play you honestly and that can’t key on one guy.”

If the Bulldogs are to stay unbeaten, Wright said the Bulldogs’ defense must continue to shine.

“I always look at blocking and tackling,” Wright said. “Mountain Pine is a power team, and if we stop all of their power plays and force them into doing stuff they don’t want to do. It’s going to come down to defense, and we’ve been playing pretty good defense so far this season. Hopefully we’ll continue that.”

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