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Knights look to end long playoff drought at home

Posted: November 7, 2018 2:38 p.m.
Updated: November 9, 2018 1:00 a.m.


Fifteen days between games was almost too much for Tyronne Drakeford to handle.

As he walked into his office Wednesday, Drakeford, the second-year North Central head coach, smiled while saying he was ready for Friday’s AA Upper State playoff opener with visiting St. Joseph’s to get here. Well, welcome to game day. And, not a minute too soon as far as Drakeford and the Knights are concerned.

“It’s been a lot of repetitive stuff,” Drakeford said of his team’s two weeks’ worth of practices, “but it’s good because we’re going against a team that does a lot of different things that we haven’t seen this year. We have to make sure our guys are on their assignment keys. More importantly, it gives us a chance to improve on what we did wrong in our last game.”

Second part first. The Knights are coming off a 21-0 loss to Buford two Thursdays ago in a game which was for the Region 4-AA championship. In that contest, NC managed 170 yards in offense. The winning Yellow Jackets did not fare much better in that department, gaining 191 yards in what was a defensive struggle.

The second part of Drakeford’s statement deals with tonight’s opponent. The visiting Knights out of Greenville operate out of the flexbone offensive scheme. They have an athletic quarterback in senior Luke Bynum (5-11, 165) and a load of a running back in 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior Rashad Luckey.

So, how did SJ’s finish with just one win to come in fourth in Region 1? That is a question which Drakeford and his staff have been trying to figure out after watching the visitors from the Upstate on film.

“I don’t know how they went 1-3 in their conference because they have a solid team,” Drakeford said of Jon Wheeler’s squad which went 4-2 in non-conference play. 

In Luckey, Drakeford said, SJ has “a guy (Luckey) who can run the ball. He’s a tough kid.” Luckey is the bell cow for a Knights offense which looks to run first, second and third. If the NC defense does not stop the ground game, the visitors will forsake a passing game which has struggled and had nine passing yards in a 32-28 loss to Blacksburg two weeks ago.

“That’s typical of these flexbone and wishbone teams. Their whole thing is to run the ball up there and hope they break one. If they get three or four yards a carry, that’s good for them and they’ll keep going,” Drakeford said. 

“Hopefully, your defensive line and your linebackers stay with their assignment and watch their keys. Our thing is that we have to try and keep them behind the line of scrimmage so that they’ll have to start throwing the ball.”

North Central had success is stopping Central’s wishbone offense and took the Eagles out of their comfort zone in a 41-21 NC win last month. Drakeford said the defensive game plan for tonight will be similar to what it was against the visitors from Pageland then.

On defense, St. Joe’s has allowed opponents to score less than 21 points per game. The Knights are anchored by Jacob Johanning (6-3, 255) at one end and Jake Masters (6-4, 215) on the opposite side of the field.

Drakeford said the visiting Knights, like most defenses, will try and stop or, slow down the run, first. What NC will do is to test defenders not named Johanning and force them to come up and make plays.

“(Johanning) is real good in space and he can run plays down,” Drakeford said. “Generally, when you have a good player like that, you try and come after him to see how good he is as far as taking on blocks. We’re going to attack him that way and see if their other guys can make plays. We’re not going to let their best player beat us.”

The NC offense --- Buford game excluded --- was clicking in the second half of the season and scored 28 or more points in half their 10 games. The key has been mixing a solid ground game with a passing attack which features Markell Portee and his 11 touchdown grabs at one end. Tailback Jamel Jones and his 525 rushing yards paces the ground game.

Tonight, NC will get backup signal caller Tyler Faulkenberry back from injury to compliment Austin Bowers and Avante’ Reynolds. All three bring a different dynamic and skill set to the offense and each has a package for when their number is called to step behind center.

This will be NC’s second straight game with something being on the line. While the first one did not go as planned, Drakeford said he hopes the experience in Buford will pay dividends tonight.

 “I think it does help,” he said of having played in a meaningful game already. “Obviously, you want to win every game, especially when you are playing for a championship. (The Buford loss) made us even hungrier for the playoffs because we know that we’re capable of beating good teams, we just have to find a way to do it.”

Finding that formula is what the Knights have spent the better part of two weeks working on in practice. Drakeford said the additional practice time has helped his staff correct what went wrong in Buford.

The fact that NC is playing at home, where they have not lost in five starts this season, is also a plus.

“It’s always good to have that first playoff game at home, especially when you haven’t had one here in a long time,” Drakeford said. “It’s kind of like that Texas A&M deal where you have that 12th man on your side. You have that fan support and your kids want to play well in front of their peers and their parents. It just brings that extra excitement to the game.”


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