The Henry County High School football team doesn’t have too many secrets it can hide from the Clarksville Northeast Eagles as the two programs prepare to meet at 7 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A state playoffs at Patriot Stadium.
The Patriots and Eagles play each season as members of Region 7-5A and have met 35 times through the years, with Henry County winning 31 times, including a 58-0 romp Oct. 23 in Clarksville.
In the playoffs, Henry County has beaten Northeast three times. There is a good omen there in that the Patriots beat the Eagles 30-7 in 2011 and won a semifinal battle in 2013 by a 43-14 score. Henry County won the Class 5A state championship both of those seasons.
The last playoff matchup came in 2015 when the Patriots scored a 44-20 victory in the second round of the playoffs.
Patriot head coach James Counce Jr. says it’s extremely difficult to beat a team twice in one season. He doesn’t expect Friday night’s game to go anything like the Patriots’ big win at Northeast earlier this season.
“We had some things our way early in that game that really took the wind out of their sails,” Counce said. “They have a really good football team that has bounced back to play very well after that game. They have good size and they have a lot of really good athletes that can give us a lot of problems. I expect that we are going to have our hands full on Friday night.”
Counce said he didn’t think it was going to be any trouble keeping his team focused on getting ready to play the Eagles.
“I think our guys understand the importance of not allowing past success against a team play a part in our preparation. Northeast is in the quarterfinals of the playoffs and that makes them a dangerous opponent. We saw last year against Dyer County that you can beat somebody by a big score in the regular season and they can come back to beat you in the playoffs if you don’t get prepared and perform the way you are capable of playing,” said Counce.
Dyer County knocked Henry County out of the playoffs last season with a big second-half rally that gave the Choctaws a 31-24 win at Patriot Stadium.
WHAT PATS KNOW ABOUT EAGLES
Northeast leans heavily on sophomore quarterback Jaiden Puig to direct the attack. Puig (5-foot-6, 190 pounds) can both run and throw the football. The Patriots contained him in the first meeting by spending a great deal of time in the Eagles’ backfield.
That might have been a surprise since Northeast has five linemen who weigh more than 250 pounds and two that go more than 300 pounds. The Eagles’ roster has less than 50 players, so a lot of players play on both offense and defense.
The running game is powered by junior tailback Juwan Harris (5-10, 250) who scored a touchdown in the Eagles’ 17-15 victory last week over Clarksville. They will also hand off to senior Jaylin Bowser (5-7, 160) on sweeps.
When Puig passes, he likes to throw to senior Jayen Bussey (6-4, 180) and sophomore Dez Fort (5-11, 176).
Northeast’s senior kicker Nick Kaufman connected on a 43-yard field goal last week against Clarksville.
STRATEGY: TAKE SOMETHING AWAY
Reports in the Clarksville news media indicate Northeast is working on a game plan that will take something away from the Patriots’ attack. They believe Henry County is too varied to concentrate on trying to stop all facets of the Patriots’ offensive game but they want to either stop the Patriots from running or shut down the passing game.
CLARK TRIES TO BUILD CONFIDENCE
Henry County has won four straight region titles and haven’t lost a region game during that time in the regular season. Northeast head coach Brandon Clark has been quoted in the Clarksville media that the Eagles need to focus on playing the man in front of them and not get caught up in the hoopla surrounding the game.
“We have got to convince our kids that when you play Henry County, we’re playing against their players,” said Clark on the Clarksville Now webpage. “We’re not playing against their booster club and we’re not playing against their stadium or their coaching staff. We’ve got to get the mindset to them and it’s one hundred percent my responsibility. We’re going to mentally be in the right place this time.”
COUNCE APPLAUDS APPROACH
Counce isn’t the least bit offended by Clark’s approach to getting ready to play the Patriots.
“Hats off to him,” said Counce about Clark’s comments. “If I were in his shoes, I’d probably be doing the same thing. He just wants to get his team fired up and prepared to play the game the best way that he can.”
PATRIOTS WON’T CHANGE MUCH
While Counce acknowledges that everyone the Patriots play makes adjustments from what the HCHS coaching staff has seen them do in previous meetings and on film, he doesn’t plan to make many changes in what the Patriots do other than continue to improve at execution.
The Patriots are going to run the ball often with senior Jermarcus Johnson (5-7, 175), a Mr. Football semifinalist, getting most of the work. Johnson set a school record in the regular season by rushing for 1,370 yards this season. He scored 19 touchdowns in the regular season.
He ran for 85 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots’ 51-16 triumph over Brighton last week.
Sophomore quarterback Ryan Damron (5-10, 170) threw for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns in the regular season. He threw for 126 yards with a touchdown pass to senior tight end Sanchez Aldridge last week against Brighton.
Of course, he had two touchdown passes negated by penalties and another waved off for being out of the end zone.
His favorite receiver is senior Jawon Odoms (6-2, 182), who averaged 26 yards a catch during the regular season with eight touchdown catches. Brighton shifted much of its secondary to make sure Odoms was covered last week but he still caught two balls for 44 yards and had one of the touchdown catches that was waved off. He also drew a pair of pass interference calls against Brighton defenders.
Senior lineman Jordan Elkins (6-1, 240) and Sam Sleadd (6-1, 220) are joined by Lewis Hudson (6-1, 225) to give the Patriots solid blocking.
DEFENSIVE UNIT PLAYING VERY WELL
Henry County’s defense finished the regular season with two shutouts and held Brighton scoreless until the Cardinals scored twice in garbage time last week.
Patriot senior outside linebacker Eli Bona (6-foot, 175) is living in the opposing backfield each game. Bona paced the Patriots with seven tackles and was in on four stops for a loss of yardage. Henry County had 12 tackles for a loss of yards against a high-powered Brighton offensive attack.
Aldridge (5-11, 195) is another playmaker at outside linebacker, as are senior inside linebackers Mekhi Sanders (5-9, 229) and Rodney Littleton (5-4, 193).
Sophomores Thomas Conroy (6-1, 226) and Dre Hepner (6-foot, 308) have given the defensive line a boost. Odoms shuts down his side of the field in the secondary.
Senior defensive end Damian Rushing (6-1, 185) intercepted a pass and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown against Brighton.
SPECIAL TEAMS ARE SPECIAL
The Patriots blocked a punt that led to a touchdown last week and got a 26-yard field goal from senior Darrius Stephens (5-8, 143). Henry County thought it had recovered a fumble on a kickoff but the ball wound up going back to Brighton.
“We always believe that it is important to get some big plays from our special teams to help out in playoff games,” Counce said.
FANS STILL LIMITED AT GAMES
Patriot Stadium won’t be its normal overflowing madhouse on Friday as the crowd is limited in size because of the complications brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Still the horns will be blowing and the Big Red faithful who are allowed to pass through the gates will be cheering wildly for the Patriots.
Fans must go to the GoFan website to purchase tickets that are emailed to their cellphones to enter the games. Temperature checks, wearing masks and social distancing is required at the stadium. Fans also are not being allowed to celebrate with the teams on the field following the game.
Earlier this week, I reported there was a link for a video broadcast of the game. I picked up the link in another media outlet’s website but that link has been removed from that site. I tried the link out myself and it doesn’t work.
Henry County athletic director Mike Poteete said the administration is looking into sponsoring a local broadcast link but all the details have not been worked out yet.
TIME TO GET PATRIOT FEVER
Whether fans can make it to the game, listen on the radio or find a broadcast link, it is time for the Big Red nation to show their support for a group of Patriot players that has bravely battled through all the craziness the coronavirus has thrown at them to have a very successful football season.
They’ve made great strides since having to rush into the season in late August to post a 9-2 record so far. If the Patriots can get by Northeast, then the semifinal round of the playoffs will also be played at Patriot Stadium next week.
Go, Big Red!
TOMMY PRIDDY is a Paris native who has been sports editor at The Post-Intelligencer since 1985. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.