By David Rogers. September 4, 2015. NEWLAND, NC – Scoring five consecutive touchdowns in the first quarter and a half of play Friday night at MacDonald Stadium, Watauga jumped out to 34-0 lead over Avery County with 5:22 still left in the first half – and then started fiddling.
COVER IMAGE: Corey West pushes off defender for a big gain early in the first half. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
See Comprehensive Game Statistics and SLIDESHOW below the story
By game’s end, thunderstorms and lightning approached from the direction of Mt. Mitchell, but that didn’t deter the hundreds of Watauga fans — including scores of “crazies”: those passionate, camouflaged-clad student supporters — from enjoying the thrills and spills of a rivalry’s rich traditions.
The Pioneers’ opening fireworks included a 79-yard romp by junior running back Evan Suggs through the middle of the Vikings’ defensive line and beyond, but senior Aaron Dobbins proved to the many blue-clad fans packing the visitors side of the field that Boone’s favorite sons could get the job done through the air, too. On the first play from scrimmage in the second quarter, Dobbins found wingback Corey West down the left side for a 59-yard TD catch-and-run to take the Pioneer advantage to 20-0.
For the evening, Suggs logged his third straight 200+ yards rushing game, finishing with 211 net yards on just 13 carries for a 16.2 yard average – and two rushing TDs. Also on the ground, West added 68 yards on 8 carries, including a rushing TD to go along with his pass reception TD.
We just played sloppy at times.
Afterwards, Watauga head coach Ryan Habich explained to reporters that they were using this game to “try some stuff,” to reach deeper into the playbook and discover more about what they can do and where the Pioneers’ weaknesses might be before entering Northwestern Conference play. In three weeks, Watauga hosts St. Stephens on September 25th, on Homecoming night.
With Dobbins’ TD aerial to wingback Hamilton Castle for 7-yards and the Pioneers 5th consecutive TD just past midway through the second quarter, the 6-4, 225 lb. QB was already 10-of-11 for 132 yards through the air, including the two scoring strikes to West and Castle. Perhaps attributed to the “fiddling,” trying new things, his aerial proficiency didn’t always hold up.
But where Watauga’s first two games’ offensive production were mostly dominated by the running game, Habich & Co. must have been pleased with the more balanced Pioneer offense against Avery, at least statistically. Of 502 yards of total offense, 297 were on the ground and 205 were through the air.
Although down 34-0, Avery County is to be given credit for not throwing in the towel. Late in the first half, Dobbins came up short on consecutive passes to Suggs and Ebaugh, then was promptly intercepted by the Vikings’ Brent Hammer at the Pioneers’ 46-yard line. The 6-1. 185 lb. senior cornerback returned the ball 11 yards, to the WHS 35, and it was from there that AC’s lanky and mobile senior QB Luke Crowe fashioned the home side’s first scoring drive: 9 plays and 35 yards to a TD, with just 9 seconds left before intermission.
Keys To The Game
- Evan Suggs’ third consecutive game with more than 200 yards rushing for the Pioneers
- A Watauga defense that was stifling for most of the first half
- A more balanced Watauga offense that saw 205 yards of net offensive yardage produced through the air, out of 297 yards total
- Bigger offensive roles for developing “skill position” athletes Rylee Critcher, Corey West and Hamilton Castle.
- Fewer Watauga turnovers
In the second half, the Vikings seemed to be taking cues from last week’s Pioneer opponent, Ashe County, correctly figuring that the best defense against Watauga’s highly productive offense is to keep them off the field. Similar to their Ashe County counterparts last week, Avery County received the second half kickoff, then Crowe fashioned a 15-play, 71-yard scoring drive. It ended with a TD when the senior signal caller found junior wide receiver Brett Smith running across the middle at the back of the end zone. Leaping high in the air, Smith had the presence of mind to come down with his feet barely touching paydirt inside the deadball line. The Viking drive took almost half of the third quarter’s time off the clock, and tightened things up at 34-13.
Dobbins went into a funk late in the second quarter. He seemed to be rushing his delivery and forcing his passes into traffic. In Watauga’s last two possessions of the first half, the senior QB threw five consecutive incomplete passes, including the interception by Avery’s Brent Hammer that set up the Vikings’ lone Q2 touchdown.
But where Dobbins had a spell where things weren’t going right in the passing lanes, he was more than making up for it on the ground with designed “keepers” that saw him faking handoffs to Suggs up the middle, then slashing off of left or right tackle for 5 and 6 yard gains, sometimes more, to keep the Viking defense off balance.
Sometimes failure can be the best lesson…
In explaining at least part of reason for Watauga’s second half decline in offensive production, Coach Habich disclosed to reporters afterwards, “We’re trying some new things on offense. We didn’t have a bye week, so this is one of those (times) where we wanted to try (those things) and see what we are good at by conference time.
“…We just played sloppy at times,” he admitted, “and on both sides of the ball. There are things that we need to fix before conference play.
“Suggs is a really good player,” Habich acknowledged when a reporter pointed out the junior RB’s offensive contributions on the ground, especially in the first half. “But we know that going into conference play we need more than one good player. It is something that we work on every day in practice. Tonight was an opportunity to see what we look like in game situations. Obviously, it was very sloppy at times. Up front, the line blocking. The shotgun snaps were really bad. Some of the (passing) routes were bad. The reads by the quarterback were bad.
“But those are all things that we can correct,” the third year Watauga head coach added. “You know, sometimes failure – when you don’t do things right – can be the best lesson because you can point things out (to the players) on film and say, ‘Hey, this is what we have to work at.’ Everything that we’re not doing right is fixable.”
Habich observed that the Pioneer coaching mindset is geared toward getting prepared for Northwestern Conference play. “Our goal is that we want to compete in conference (for a conference championship). We wanted to throw and we wanted to run a bit more from the shotgun. (In these non-conference games) those are things that we’ve to try and find out what works well for us. When conference comes around, then we’ll feel pretty good about what we need to do, offensively.”
“We tried more things today than our base offense. We went outside the box a little bit to see what we can do well. We’ll keep the things that we do well and game plan the things that we don’t…It’s all about growing and getting better. Our kids will get better after this game.”
Habich credited Avery’s players and coaches for not giving up, even when the score was lopsided. “Those kids fought hard. The coaches have done a good job there, especially coming in as late as he did. They didn’t quit. They kept playing hard. It was a good chance for our defense to try and make some adjustments and get some stops. Our second half defense is not where it needs to be and we have to improve upon that.”
They are doing their jobs and expecting me to do mine.
Mr. Habich admitted that the big lead allowed him to get more athletes some playing time, but pointed out that roster depth is a problem for the Pioneers. “We played more kids, especially on the defensive line. We had one starter go down with a knee injury and we had one starter who was suspended, but really we don’t have a lot of depth. A lot of our kids may have looked tired, especially in the second half, because they are playing both ways. We don’t have many backups. Are backups are often more changing players’ positions rather than ‘next guy in.’ When we get tired, we don’t play as well.”
In a post-game interview with Blowing Rock News, Mr. Suggs was quick to deflect any nearby well-wishers’ praise for his third straight game rushing for more than 200 yards. “It’s all about the team and the system,” he noted. “I just happen to be the one carrying the ball. That’s MY job. On every play there are 10 other guys out there doing THEIR jobs successfully and that allows me to get the team’s yardage gains. They are blocking. They are running pass routes to lure defenders away from the point of attack. They are doing their jobs and expecting me to do mine for the team to be successful.”
Asked whether he ever figures into the passing attack, Suggs smiled and said, “Sure. I love to catch passes and I can catch the ball. But as the B-back, my role in the passing game is more likely to be as a blocker.”
Next up for the Pioneers is a home game on September 11th vs. Asheville-based 4A powerhouse A.C. Reynolds. The Rockets are 2-1, after a narrow win over West Forsyth (Aug. 21: 31-28), a road game loss to Shelby (Aug. 28: 39-56), and a lopsided victory over Owen HS (Sept. 4: 49-7).
Reynolds will come into the game as the #2 ranked team in the Asheville Citizen-Times “Best of the West”, behind undefeated Asheville High School. The Rockets are led by dual-threat QB Rico Dowdle and running backs Colby Maloney and Frank Walsh, both running and receiving passes out of the backfield. On defense, the Pioneers’ offense will have to worry about the mobility of senior linebacker Kaleb Wood and defensive end Isaiah Hermance.
Asked whether he thought his charges were ready to play a 4A roster full of stronger, faster and bigger athletes, top to bottom, than they saw in the first three games against Alexander Central, Ashe County, and Avery County, Habich candidly said, “Well, we scheduled (Reynolds) for a purpose. Obviously we didn’t schedule them for (an easy) win. That would be kind of like Appalachian State scheduling Oregon. This is sort of the same scenario.
“We scheduled Reynolds,” Habich stated, “to expose every flaw that we have, to get us ready for conference play. We feel pretty good at being 3-0 and (in the rankings for the state playoffs) you are able to drop a non-conference loss. There is one thing I know: We are going to prepare to give (Reynolds) our best shot. We know it is an uphill battle with their speed and size. I think this may be one of the top teams they have had in a long, long time, especially with the speed they have.
“This is going to be a great opportunity for us to play that kind of competition,” concluded Habich. “This is the sort of competition that you will see in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th round of the state playoffs. So we are excited about it and I think the kids are excited about it. I want the kids to know and believe that this is the sort of game that they can play in.”
SLIDESHOW By David Rogers for Blowing Rock News