Tuscola seeks third WNCAC championship
Tuscola Head Coach Brandon Allen wants to be on the field after tonight’s WNC Athletic Conference regular season finale celebrating with his players and coaching staff.
If his wish is to be granted, Allen’s Mountaineers have to beat the Franklin Panthers, which will give his football team an equal share of the WNCAC title — its first in four years.
“We have broken down Franklin’s film, and the coaching staff is in agreement, Coach (Josh) Brooks’ team has no glaring weaknesses,” said Allen. “Franklin will be a very tough opponent that comes to our house. Their defense is so good at stopping the run but they also are very sound against the pass. Offensively, Franklin’s bread-and-butter is the power run game. They run the ball very effectively out of the I-formation and will burn an opponent with the play-action pass.
“But we are very excited about this opportunity to play a great football team for a share of the conference championship. It was a great week in preparations and we will give it everything we have to win the game.”
A huger crowd is expected for tonight’s WNCAC championship game, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. from C.E. Weatherby Stadium.
Tuscola, which is 8-2 overall, 8-1 for playoff purposes and 5-1 in the conference, needs to win to earn a share of the title. Franklin, however can do no worse than share the regular season conference championship. The Panthers are undefeated at 10-0 overall, 9-0 for playoff purposes and 6-0 in the WNCAC. If the Panthers beat the Mountaineers, they win an outright conference championship, while a loss would drop them into sharing the crown.
The focal point for Tuscola will be its defense and if its tenacious unit can stop the Panthers’ power rushing attack, which has scoed 38 points per game this season.
Leading the Mountaineers’ defense (16.4 ppg), which will be without the services of Ben Greene for the remainder of the season, are Houston McCracken (40 solos, 20 assists, 50 total tackles, 2 TFLs), Jon Martinez (50 solos, 26 assists, 63 total tackles, 9 TFLs) and Daniel Smathers (60 solos).
Greene sustained a season-ending leg injury against Pisgah.
Franklin has been without the services of Marquell Manning (2,364 yards, 33 touchdowns in 2012) for most of the season because of a knee injury. But he is back and will join the team’s leading rusher Jeremiah Young (1,560 yards, 26 TDs) in the backfield.
If that wasn’t enough for Tuscola Defensive Coordinator Ethan Rhinehart to worry about, his unit has to contend with the effective play-action passing of quarterback Luke Keener, who has completed 56.2 percent of his passes for 1,246 yards, eight touchdowns and has been picked off five times.
However, Tuscola’s offense (36.5 ppg) will also be tested in its final regular season exam against a stout Franklin defense, which allows an average of 14.1 points per game this season and 7.3 points in six WNCAC games.
Leading Tuscola’s ground-and-pound attack is junior Bryce Myers, who has rushed for 1,620 yards and 20 touchdowns, senior quarterback Woody Cornwell has rushed for 542 yards and McCracken has gained 418 yards on the ground.
But the key to a Tuscola victory may be the Mountaineers’ finding a passing attack to prevent the Panthers from jamming up the box to stop the run. Cornwell has completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions (3 INTs vs. Pisgah).
Cornwell’s favorite receivers this season have been Adam Chambers (20 receptions, 286 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Damon McDaniels (18 receptions, 371 yards and 2 touchdowns).
Inside the series
Historically, the two scores have played 27 times and Tuscola owns the series with an 18-9-0 record, while Franklin holds a 6-8 lead since 1999, including the last two games.
The Panthers won 48-21 in last year’s game and 35-14 in 2011, which was the last time Franklin played at Weatherby Stadium.
Since 1999, Tuscola is 4-3 against Franklin with the meeting held in Waynesville.
A win tonight would give Tuscola at least a share of a conference championship for the third time in the program’s last six seasons. The Mountaineers won an outright title in 2009 and shared the conference crown with East Henderson in 2008.
In both the 2009 and 2008 seasons, Tuscola defeated Franklin.
The conventional pick is Franklin. But this has been an unconventional season for the Mountaineers and Allen gets to celebrate after the game with his players in grand style as co champions — and goes into next week’s playoffs with the No. 1 seed.
Tuscola 14, Franklin 13