Cornersville football reaches the peak
By the time midday hits southern Marshall County on Friday, Cornersville should take on the characteristics of a ghost town as their beloved Bulldogs play in its first-ever state final football game at 11 a.m. in Cookeville at the Tennessee Tech University football stadium against Greenback.
The two schools are almost identical in everything, except playoff experience.
The Loudon County Cherokees post a population of 1,119 and a high school enrollment of 234 students.
However, the Cherokees have an all-time playoff record of 38-24 with three state final appearances.
Greenback beat longtime Cornersville rival Richland 32-0 in 1987 for the school's only championship, but have played in the past two final meetings with large losses to Nashville Christian School 42-14 in the 2015 1A final and a 62-27 loss to Dresden in the 2016 final.
The Cherokees (12-1) enter the game with only one blemish on its record, a 21-7 loss to DII AA Grace Christian-Knoxville.
Greenback comes into the game with an offense that has scored over 42 points in eight of 14 games and prior to the 31-21 upset win over number one ranked South Pittsburg (13-1), the Cherokees had scored at least 53 points in the previous five games.
The Cherokees bring a well-balanced offense into the contest with an average of 196 yards in the air per game and 200 yards on the ground and have posted impressive wins over Division II-A King's Academy (8-4) and 3A Loudon (8-4).
"Greenback is a really talented football team," Bulldog coach Gerard Randolph stated. "After watching film on them it's not hard to understand how a team of their caliber has made it to this point the past couple of years. They have a ton of football tradition in their community and for good reasons."
"For our team to be successful against Greenback we will have to limit their big, explosive plays," Randolph continued. "They feature one of the best running backs in 1A football in Breeden Gilbert. We will see a balanced attack as far as running the ball and throwing it downfield. Offensively, we have to be the more physical team up front and control the line of scrimmage."
This game might be a preview of next season as well as both squads feature a majority of underclassmen in key possession.
Junior dual-threat quarterback Bryce Hanley has thrown 93 passes for 1,704 yards and 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, while rushing for 490 yards on 86 carries.
Hanley is also the leader on defense with 148 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss and two picks.
The main ball carrier is junior Breeden Gilbert, who comes into the game with 1,062 yards on the ground on 143 attempts for 23 touchdowns while also catching 16 passes for 299 yards and four more scores.
Gilbert is also a standout on defense with 146 tackles and 13 tackles for a loss while punting for an average of 34.8 yards.
Juniors Josh Edwards (101 carries, 563 yards, 17 TDs) and Cody Alexander (25 carries, 242 yards, 2 TDs) both contribute to the running attack.
Both Edwards (112 tackles, 3 TFL) and Alexander (101 tackles, 15 TFL, 4 sacks) are both huge components on the Cherokee defense.
Hanley's favorite targets on offense are sophomore Holden Willis (43 rec. 624 yards, 3 TD) and juniors Seth Riddle (21 rec. 490 yards, 3 TD), Cole Riddle (21 rec. 474 yards, 5 TD), and Blake Morton (18 Rec. 324 yards, 5 TD).
Greenback also features a capable kicker in Creed Ramsey who has converted 71-of-74 PATs and 3-for-3 on field attempts with a long of 34 yards.
But the Bulldog defense is up for the challenge.
"Greenback has a good offense, both throwing and running the ball, however, if our defensive plays like we did last Friday, if not better, we should be able to shut them down," senior defensive lineman, Brice Dunkleman stated. "I trust that throughout this week of practice that the coaches will put us in the right spot and give us the right ‘fill’ to stop their offense."
Greenback also features a defense led by Tyler Kuhn with 120 tackles and 12 tackles for a loss with Reese Plemmons adding 114 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
The Bulldogs defense has been the most impressive aspect of the game as Cornersville has allowed 200 yards or less in three of the four playoff contests.
Cornersville held Bruceton Central to 192 yards, Grace Christian to 198 yards, and a minuscule 157 yards last Friday versus Lake County.
The Bulldogs allowed 322 yards to the high-powered Huntingdon offense, but held the Mustangs to just 14 points in regulation.
The defensive line of Devin Baus (50.5 tackles, two sacks, nine TFL, INT), Brock Powers (55 tackles, nine sacks, 20.5 TFL, INT), and Dunkleman (26 tackles, 4.5 TFL, sack) have become one of the most unforgiving lines in the state.
C.J. Coble (54 tackles, four TFL, .5 sacks), Blake Pickett (44 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT), and Darien Bush (52.5 tackles, 3 TFL) are some of the best at each's respective positions in the state.
But the big question of Thursday will be the status of quarterback Eli Woodard (1,418 rushing yards, 15 TDs and 11-18 for 281 yards passing for 3 TD and 2 INT).
Since Woodard took over at quarterback position after the Eagleville loss, the Bulldogs have posted an unbeaten record.
The junior signal caller left the game early against Lake County and did not return.
"Right now with Eli we are taking it day by day," Randolph said. "We have confidence in our team to get the job done if he can't go. This team is a gritty team that wants this Championship!"
"We have guys that have stepped up all year and that's pretty much been our recipe for success" Randolph continued. "We have several guys that can help lead this team. I always preach defense every game.”
“I love how successful our offense has been all season, but you have got to be able to stop people too. We know that as a football program and we will need our best offensive and defensive performance all season in this Championship game. I am excited and the guys are too, and we can't wait to compete this Thursday morning."
If Woodard cannot go senior Kolbe McMahon (2-4 passing 29 yards 1 TD, 1 INT) and junior Henlee Mitchell (11-18 119 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) will split the time under center.
McMahon offers a dual threat option with 973 rushing yards and 12 TDs on the ground while Mitchell is a typical pro-style quarterback.
"I hope he can play, but if he can’t everyone will have to step up and I think coach Pitts will put us in a good position," McMahon said. "We will run as a committee just like we have all year. We played without Eli a couple games earlier in the year and was still successful and put up a lot of points."
The Bulldogs put up 58, 38, and 42 in wins over Richland, Huntland, and Lancaster Christian to finish the season with Woodard sidelined with another injury.
With or without Woodard, the Bulldogs have plenty of firepower on offense with Cameron Whitaker.
Whitaker leads the team with 1,883 all-purpose yards, has rushed for 1,275 yards on just 138 carries on the year, while adding 77 receiving yards, 281 punt return yards for two TD, and 250 kickoff yards.
Whitaker will get help from Trenten Warren (34 carries, 301 yards, 9 TD), Peyton Finch (29 carries, 136 yards, 6 TD) and Bush with (26 carries, 177 yards, 3 TD).
Warren has also been a beast on defense with 35 tackles in four playoff games for 70 on the year despite missing the first half of the season with an injury.
Ryan Prosser can also add yards with two receptions on the year to go along with three kickoff returns for 93 yards.
And although the game will be televised across the state and played at 11a.m. in the morning, Randolph thinks his team will keep an even keel and carry on with business as usual.
"We talk to our guy’s everyday about the importance of having fun and enjoying this moment," Randolph said. "We are approaching this game as a business trip. We understand that there will be a ton of distractions, but at the end of the day it's a football game that has to be played."
"There are a lot of good football teams that are not able to be here this week and we are very fortunate to be in this position and we are going try and make the most of our opportunity," Randolph continued. "This football program is very appreciative of getting the opportunity to play in a game of this magnitude.
“It’s going to be different, I will say," Randolph said of the early start. "We had to adjust our practice scheduling throughout the week and once again that has been a little different for us. It's an adjustment that we welcome though."
"We will go up to Cookeville on Wednesday afternoon to get settled in and get the guys a good night’s rest," Randolph added. "I think the opportunity of playing for the state championship in itself will definitely help get this group of guys motivated, I know it will myself. This opportunity does not come very often, and it takes hard work, preparation, and yes some good luck to make it here.
For the handful of seniors who worked through back-to-back 3-7 seasons as freshman and sophomores before finally breaking through into the playoffs as juniors with a 5-5 record, a 13-1 season with a trip to the state championship game will be a season to remember forever.
"It was rough, we went through the growing pains of being young but coach Randolph always told us ‘our day is coming’ especially after the Moore County loss my sophomore year," McMahon remembered. "The road to Cookeville was starting to be said the start of my junior year and we bought in as a team because if we didn’t believe it no one will. I would say the most exciting moment for me is scoring the game tying touchdown in regulation (against Huntingdon), then when Adam hit the game winning PAT of course."