For the Tigers, its back to the playoffs

Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Running back Kamron Liggett has been unstoppable this season.
Tribune photo by Anthony S. Puca

In this world nothing can be said to be certain but death, taxes, and that Marshall County football will be in the playoffs every year come the beginning of November.

For the past two seasons, the Tigers (7-3) have not only made the playoffs, but coasted to the semifinals before losing a shootout to eventual champ Knoxville Catholic in 2016 and losing a heartbreaker to runner-up Knoxville Central after taking an early 21-3 lead.

This season, on the way the way to winning a third straight region title, the Tigers have become more battle tested with arguably one of the toughest schedules in the state.

Marshall County lost by just seven points to 6A Cane Ridge (9-1) to start the year, lost to 2015 4A runner-up and 2016 4A semifinalist Pearl-Cohn by a mere three points and played even with 2016 6A semifinalist Brentwood (9-1) for more than a half before the Bruins depth sealed the deal.

The run to the region title was a bit closer than the previous two seasons as the Tigers squeaked by Tullahoma (5-5) by just seven points, Maplewood (7-3) by a pair of scores, and Spring Hill (5-5) by just seven points.

"It means a lot for the team knowing that we are three time region champs," Tiger quarterback Bryce Wallace, who has thrown for 1,232 yards and just three interceptions this year, said. "The guys on our team work really hard and I'm proud that we are able to say that for three years, nobody in our region has been able to beat us."

The obvious advantage of winning the region is the opportunity to both gain home field advantage in the first two rounds, but also getting to play the lowest seeded team in the next region.

This season, that happens to be DeKalb County (3-7) from Smithville, how made the playoffs despite winning just three games due to playing in a region with only five teams.

But one thing coach Thomas Osteen and the Tigers will not do is overlook any team, dismal record or not.

"We must respect our opponent," Osteen, who is 19-1 in region games since taking over the Tigers in 2014, said. "Every team is 0-0 starting in the playoffs and must survive and advance no matter what it takes. We have emphasized that we have worked too hard to not make the most of our opportunities now."

"DeKalb County has a very rich football tradition and has had a lot of success in recent years," Osteen added. "They are spread football team that likes to throw the ball around the yard. We must be able to get pressure on the quarterback and play great in pass coverage."

Helping out Wallace on the offensive end will be Kamron Liggett, who is in the midst of a monster senior season with 1,310 rushing yards and 27 scores on 198 carries.

Wallace will also move the chains with quick feet, rushing for 428 and four touchdowns of his own on the ground.

On the receiving end, Dagon Stacey (24 receptions, 403 yards, 4 TDs), Brandon Rowan (33 receptions, 320 yards, TD) and Devon Wilson (27 receptions, 364 yards, 5 TDs) have emerged as the quarterback's favorite targets.

Placekicker Caleb Estes is always a threat once the Tigers move inside the red zone, finishing the regular season with four field goals and 37-for-40 point after touchdown kicks.

On the defensive side, senior defensive end Tavi McLean (80 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, and 15 quarterback hurries) comes into the game with seven DI FCS college offers and is the undisputed leader of the unit.

Grant Agnew (60 tackles, three passes defended) and Marcellus Campbell (31 tackles, three interceptions) lead the defensive backfield, while Andrew Gold (53 tackles, INT) plays big at the linebacker position.

Josh Johnson and Jayshon Wilcox hold down the trenches, combining for 78 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, and 16 quarterback hurries on the defensive line.

"I think that if we can be more physical than them and get our athletes in open space then we will have some success against DeKalb," Wallace noted.

DeKalb County has been kind of late to the playoff party, making just four appearances in over a 20-year span from 1985-2008, but once the party got started the Tigers made sure to claim a steady invitation.

Since the 2008 season, the Smithville squad has made the playoffs every year except for 2010, but they have just three overall postseason victories with last coming at the expense of Sequoyah in 2012.

Since that time, DeKalb County has bowed out in the opening round every season, but the Tigers look to be getting closer to a breakout playoff campaign, losing by a single point, 23-22, to Chattanooga Christian in 2015 and by just five points to East Ridge last year.

The past regular season has been a bit of a disappointment for DeKalb County, losing seven games after posting back-to-back 7-3 campaigns in 2015 and 2016, however, the have been a few bright spots to gain confidence from.

The Tigers lost to top-seed Livingston Academy (8-2) by just 11 points, the Wildcats second closest region game of the season, played 6A Warren County to within a mere 16 points in the season opener, and put up the second most points overall and the most points of the region 3-4A teams against number two seed Macon County (8-2).

The Tigers lone region win on the year came via a closer than expected 16-8 win over winless Cumberland County in the regular season finale for the final playoff spot.

DeKalb County averages 248 yards per game to Marshall County's 328.5 points per contest, but they also offer a healthy dose of both run and pass while the major players on offense and defense are mostly experienced seniors.

Leading the charge under center is senior signal caller Tyler Cantrell who has passed for 1,168 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, but completes a below average .474 percent (72-152) of his passes compared to nearly 60 percent from Wallace.

On the ground, sophomore running back David Bradford (114 carries, 627 yards, 3 TDs) leads the team while seniors Braxton Linder (24 receptions, 430 yards, 5 TDs) and Miller Bradley (32 receptions, 618 yards, 8 TDs) are Cantrell's favorite targets during the passing game.

Senior Paxton Butler also adds 233 reception yards and excels on special specials with an eye catching 625 kickoff return yards.

The Tigers rely on junior place kicker Andrew Fuson, who has nailed 23-of-26 extra points and 5-of-8 field goals with a long of 37 yards.

On defense the linebackers are the group to keep an eye on.

Seniors Jesse Smith (90 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks) and Nick May (88 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks) provide the backbone for a group that has held six opponents to 21 points or less.

Linder adds 53 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions, while Miller and Butler each add two interceptions from the defensive backfield.

The past two seasons the Tigers have outscored first-round playoff opponents from region 3-4A 100-7 and region 4-4A swept 3-4A in first round action in 2016.

Look for the Tigers to keep on with its first round dominance with the help of the ever important 12th man from Lewisburg.

"It can't be stated enough how big home field advantage is in the playoffs," Osteen pointed out. "We have had great home crowds in the playoffs in recent years and that had really helped our guys tremendously."