CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The versatile Cleveland High School offense is capable of leading the team to victory, but the key to a win over Knoxville West in the Class 5A state semifinals tonight will be about how well the Blue Raiders' defense performs.
The teams have played before this season, with the Rebels jumping out to a 21-point lead after a quarter and holding on for a 35-25 victory on Sept. 27. They rushed for 266 yards in their triple-option veer attack and forced three first-half turnovers. They led by 22 at halftime and withstood a pair of Blue Raider touchdowns to claim the win.
Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said that although watching video of the first half of the game was pretty rough, the coaches felt good about the defensive adjustments made throughout the game. The most important thing the Raiders can do tonight? Not make mistakes.
"We didn't execute like we were capable of," Crawford said. "We had a good plan, but we didn't tackle as well as we have lately. We feel like we can execute better than we did in the first half; that game we made mistakes we haven't made since. If you make mistakes against West, it's magnified because they score.
"We learned some things in the second half and made some adjustments. We spent this week going back and seeing what we did and what they did, but what it boils down to is that they're a triple-option team. We can draw up blitzes, but it's about who has the dive, the quarterback, the pitch. If we win, it's because we played good, assignment football. We just don't think there's that big of a difference in the teams."
West (12-1) has been led by Nathan Cottrell, who has rushed for 1,652 yards and 18 scores. He's averaged just under 14 yards per carry. Quarterback Seth Marshall has run for 1,045 yards and 19 scores while throwing for 739 yards and eight TDs, while fullback Justin Hodge has 747 yards and 11 TDs.
"They have really good backs and a good offensive line. They're hard to tackle," Cleveland defensive end Kimsey Bell said. "When we played them earlier, they just pounded us in the mouth and had a couple of big plays.
"Our run defense was questionable at the beginning of the year, but we've played well the past five, six weeks. Coach has made the defense a lot easier."
Against the triple-option, each player has responsibilities. On every play, each player lining up in the backfield is going to have to be accounted for. It's going to be the job of middle linebacker Jonathan Terrero to make sure Marshall is accounted for on each play. If not, he'll be able to skate free -- as was the case on a long touchdown run Marshall had on the September meeting's first possession.
"I've got to get everybody lined up, because if we're not, nothing's going to work out whatever the call is," Terrero said. "It's really important against West, because they run a lot of formations and have some really good backs, so I've got to get the men where they need to be, and then we have to be disciplined."
Rebels coach Scott Cummings has been able to veer a number of athletes to his school, and now they're hosting their first-ever state semifinal. His feeling going in is simple: Don't fix what's not broke.
"We went back and watched the film with the kids and see what we did at that time, but we're not going to dwell on it," Cummings said. "We're going to prepare as if it's any other game. Any offense or defense that's worth a crap is going to stay within their identity until they prove they can stop us. We're going to remain consistent and do the same things this week as we do every week -- practice with energy and translate what we talk about in the coaches' office to practice to the games."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.