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Recharged NC hoping to slow down Stallions

Posted: September 28, 2017 11:38 a.m.
Updated: September 29, 2017 1:00 a.m.
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ESTEBAN RODRIGUEZ ... NC wide receiver

While none of North Central’s away football games require lengthy drives, there is still no place like home.

Tonight, the Knights make the relatively short trip over to Bishopville to take on Lee Central in NC’s fifth straight road game. While not of his doing or, to his liking, first-year NC head coach Tyronne Drakeford said his team has no other option than to play the hand which it has been dealt, make the best of the tough situation and, more than anything else, do not complain about it.

“It’s unfortunate that we have this schedule,” he said, “but it is what it is. We have to put on our big boy pants and pads on and go out and play football. Whether it’s a home game or a road game, it’s still football. If we go out there and execute our offense, defense and special teams, we’ll be fine.”

A week ago, the Knights snapped a three-game slide in a big way with a 47-0 thrashing of Great Falls for their second win in five games this season. It also marked the final non-conference contest for NC which returns to Region 4-AA play tonight with an 0-1 league mark after falling to Andrew Jackson, 28-0, in Kershaw two weeks ago.

While tonight marks a return to the games that matter, it also begins the second half of the 10-game regular season. The Knights will carry momentum into the contest and will receive a boost thanks to the return of two-way starter Jamel Jones, who missed the past two contests.

While he would much rather be 5-0 than 2-3, Drakeford refuses to look back and wonder what could have been.

“We knew there is a lot of improving that we have to do so that once we get into the thick of things, which is what we’re getting into right now, I think that we’ll have a chance to win some games and put ourselves in a good position for a playoff run,” he said.

Last Friday, the Knights found a new weapon in sophomore running back MarRique Simon, who rushed for nearly 200 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught a scoring pass from quarterback Bubba Williamson, who returned to the field after a week in concussion protocol. The emergence of a  strong ground game and having their senior field general back behind center was a shot in the arm for an NC offensive line which struggled in the loss to Andrew Jackson.

Defensively, NC allowed less than 100 yards in offense to the Red Devils a week ago with some 80 of those yards coming on two plays. That unit also had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown while also having a fumble return for a score.

Getting solid performances on both sides of the ball carried over onto the practice field this week in preparation for the Stallions.

“Everybody feels a whole lot better,” Drakeford said. “The morale around the school and around the football program is totally different because people are excited about the next week whereas, if you don’t play well, you are trying to get the kids motivated.

“Right now, we don’t understand what it feels like to be a winning program. We have to get to that point where we are expecting to win every game and even if you lose a game, you anticipate coming back that following week to prove that you should have won. We’re trying to get that going around here.”

The obstacle standing in the way of NC trying to extend its win streak to two games is a formidable one. Under former Hartsville assistant Justin Danner, Lee Central has seen more than just a bit of an uptick in its football fortunes.

The Stallions are coming off a 7-4 season in which they were ranked in the AA top 10 for the majority of the season before falling to Abbeville in the first round of the state playoffs. They have not slowed down --- literally --- in opening with a 5-1 record this year with a 28-27 loss to 4-AA foe Buford being the lone smudge on their ledger.

In looking at the Stallions on film, Drakeford said LC’s speed and athleticism jump off the tape.

“Lee Central still has a lot of good athletes and a lot of speed,” he said with a smile. “We will definitely have our hands full. We’ve really been studying their films.”

The Knights have slowed things down in practice to make sure their technique is where it needs to be and all bases are covered in getting ready for the run-first Stallion offense. What NC’s backups cannot duplicate on the practice field is the speed which tonight’s hosts possess.

“It’s kind of unfortunate because we know that we’re not going to get the look in practice that we’re going to get on Friday night,” he said. “We just have to find a way to get ourselves in position and get our minds right because the game is going to be a lot faster than it is in practice.”

The Stallions’ bread and butter is getting their athletes into space for them to make big plays. More times than not, that is through the running game. Drakeford said if his defense does not slow the hosts down on the ground, the Stallions may not put the ball in the air even though they have the ability to throw the ball with junior quarterback Tijuan DuRant.

“They’re a dynamite team,” he said. “We can’t give up any big plays. They run a variety of offenses but primarily, they want to see if you can stop the run. If you can’t stop the run against these guys, it’s going to be a long night.”

Defensively, LC has allowed opponents 13.3 points per game with a unit which rallies to the football and gets to the ball carrier in a hurry.

“When you put a bunch of athletes out there who understand football and who want to win,” Drakeford said, “they’re going to fly around and get after it. That’s what you see on film; 11 guys having fun and going after the ball carrier.

“If we’re not staying on our blocks and if guys don’t finish their plays, it’s going to be a tough night for us. That’s why we have our guys watching film and we’re telling them that ‘This is how you’re going to have to play if you want to compete in this region and at this type of level.’”

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