Three teams in the Chattanooga area feature 2,000-plus-yard passers at this point in the high school football season. Yet the coaches know it's how well their teams run the ball that could determine if they advance past tonight in the state playoffs.
Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams, Bledsoe County coach Jason Reel and Calhoun coach Hal Lamb have offenses that have enjoyed plenty of success through the air this fall. But facing a tough playoff opponent could mean finding an alternate route, like the low road, to move the ball.
Ooltewah (8-3) travels plays at Powell (11-0) tonight at 7 in Class 5A. In Class 3A, Bledsoe County (10-1) is hosting Alcoa (7-4), winner of seven consecutive state titles, at 8 EST. Calhoun (10-0) is hosting Jefferson (8-2) at 7:30 in Georgia Class AA.
Four of Williams' Owls have at least 20 catches, and five have at least 200 receiving yards. Yet in last week's opening-round victory over Shelbyville Central, the leader from scrimmage was running back Desmond Pittman with 200 yards rushing.
"David Cutcliffe was quoted as saying, 'Balance is not running and throwing the ball 50-50. It's having that ability to be able to run or pass,'" said Williams, referring to the current Duke University head football coach and former Tennessee offensive coordinator. "We want to be able to run or pass when we have to. The stats may not show it, but what we do is based on what the defense gives us."
The Owls have passed for more yards than they've rushed for in seven of 11 games, and quarterback Bradley Stephens has thrown for 2,217 yards. He threw for 205 last week but on 14 throws. That's because Pittman was busy running 26 times and boosting his team-high rushing total to 837 yards.
"We really have three running backs that could play for any team in the area," Stephens said. "If they want to drop eight into coverage, we'll get our running game going. Teams have to respect our running game. If it came down to it and we ran the ball 50 times and I did not throw the ball once and we won, I'd consider that a good night."
Although Bledsoe County is averaging roughly 200 yards per game through the air, the Warriors actually average more rushing. Quarterback Cody Holloway has thrown for 2,130 yards, but running back Holden Boynton has rushed for 1,076 yards and teammate Brandon Smith has gained even more.
"It's been pretty fun to watch these kids," said Reel, who leaves play-calling duties up to offensive coordinator Josh Owensby. "In my three years we've been very fortunate to have the athletes we've had. They work hard together and work together as a team. We're just going to try to keep doing what we've done to this point."
Smith, who Reel said could line up in a one-back set, as a slot receiver or in other ways, has provided a spark in both the Warriors' running and passing games. He's not only rushed for 1,428 yards, but he's second on the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (709).
"We knew the kid was a running back and we were going to play him there," Reel said. "We didn't realize how versatile he was going to be receiving. The big thing is we want to get him out in space, and not just turn around and hand the ball off to him."
Statistically at least, Calhoun appears to be the most pass-reliant of the three teams. A change in philosophy a few seasons ago and having a dependable quarterback transfer in are key reasons why.
The quarterback is Lamb's brother Bobby's son, Taylor, who has passed for 2,403 yards. Hal and Bobby, who left Furman University to start a program at Mercer, learned coaching from their father, Ray, for whom they played at Commerce High School.
"We changed our philosophy in 2007. I was always a run guy, although I played wide receiver in college," Hal Lamb said of his career at West Georgia. "My dad always said you'll win if you're really good on defense and special teams and don't turn the ball over on offense. I took that to heart most of my career, but I've kind of changed a little bit. A few years ago we got pounded in the third round pretty good. I decided then we were going to have to do something different."
Any opponent that thinks Calhoun isn't adept at running might find out what Pepperell did last week when Darius Washington, the Yellow Jackets' leading rusher on the year with 716 yards, went for 175 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries. In other words, what a team has done doesn't necessarily reflect what it can do.
"There's no doubt in the playoffs you've got to be balanced," Lamb said. "You're going to come up against good defenses in the playoffs. If you're one-dimensional, you're not going to advance very far."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.