CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Moments after polishing off a workmanlike 42-7 victory Friday night at Cleveland, members of the McMinn County football team were already speaking of what lies ahead.
The Cherokees (8-0, 4-0 Region 2-6A), who are ranked No. 4 in Class 6A, host second-ranked Maryville (8-0, 4-0) and travel to eighth-ranked Bradley Central (6-2, 4-1) in the final two weeks of the regular season. So while their latest region win felt good to them because the Blue Raiders didn't relent, it pales in comparison to the level of competition McMinn expects to face to close the schedule.
"This week was so important," said offensive lineman Bryce Goodner, who has committed to Virginia Tech. "We were talking this week and last in practice about how it was so important for us to come out playing hard and being ready to kill it, to kind of send a statement to Cleveland and now send a statement to Maryville and to Bradley that we're for real, that we mean business and we're coming in with the intention of dominating."
McMinn dominated at the line of scrimmage against Cleveland (3-5, 1-3), rushing for 313 yards against a team that has allowed more than 1,100 yards on the ground in the past three weeks. Goodner and the rest of the offensive line paved the way for Western Carolina-committed running back Jalen Hunt to rush for 238 yards and three touchdowns, and the group protected quarterback Jaden Miller as he throw for 111 yards and two scores while also chipping in 54 yards on the ground.
Still, Cleveland had some chances early. After Hunt scored on McMinn's first drive, the Blue Raiders drove downfield with a mix of passes and runs. But at the end of a 15-yard run by DeAndrez Bridges, Noah Brown ripped the ball out of Bridges' hands at the McMinn 10-yard line.
Cleveland had two other drives stall in the red zone. The Blue Raiders' lone touchdown came on a 22-yard completion from Drew Lambert to Kley McGowan, who had 104 yards on four catches.
Lambert and starting quarterback Gage Kinsey combined to throw for 228 yards, while Bridges had 87 yards of total offense.
Even Cleveland's minor success could be seen as a plus for the Cherokees. Their starters hadn't played into the fourth quarter of a game since the season opener against McMinn Central, so they were able to get some extra work in with Cleveland cutting the deficit to 28-7 with 7:43 to play, with Hunt carrying for 61 yards on a seven-play, 65-yard drive that put the game away.
"Tonight was big for us because we were able to make some mistakes that we have to learn from," Hunt said. "We just tried to keep our foot on their necks and play ball like we should."