Blue Devil senior L.J. Mitchell avoids a tackle after catching a pass during the UCHS football team’s 28-7 loss at South Greene in the first week of the 2019 season. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

The start of the 2019 season didn’t go as well as the Blue Devils had hoped.

Playing in Greene County on Friday, Aug. 23, the Unicoi County High School football team (0-1) ran into a physical South Greene Rebel squad (1-0) and lost 28-7.

“It was disappointing, to say the least,” UCHS head coach Drew Rice said. “We felt like we were prepared going in, and we just got wore out up front on both sides of the ball. We have to do a better job of playing our assignments on both sides of the ball. Our guys never quit though, and I am proud of them for that.”

A physical front line on both offense and defense gave the Rebels an edge throughout the game. However, the Blue Devils didn’t back down from the fight.

“The difference in the game was definitely up front,” Rice said. “To South Greene’s credit, they are a really good football team with a really good quarterback and tremendous offensive and defensive lines. I feel like that was definitely the difference in the game. … They were definitely big and physical; it’s probably the biggest and most physical line we will see until the playoffs. With that being said, I don’t think our guys backed down from it, they fought all night. I do think the way they dominated the line of scrimmage was the difference in the game, though.

South Greene took a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter, doing what they did with dominance the entire night – run the football.

“They run a tough offense to defend, and then when you mix that with a four-year starter at quarterback, it’s just really tough to defend,” Rice said. “They are a well-coached football team, too.”

The Rebels took their 6-0 lead into halftime. On their first possession of the second half, they scored again and successfully completed a 2-point conversion for a 14-0 lead.

Things then looked even bleaker for the Blue Devils as South Greene recovered an onside kick to take possession again. But, the UCHS defense rose to the challenge, getting a needed stop and giving possession back to their offense.

The Blue Devils again couldn’t get anything going on offense and were forced to punt. A fumble on the punt, which was recovered by Blue Devil Diego Diaz, gave UCHS possession – and needed momentum – again.

As it happened throughout the game, penalties cost the Blue Devils on that possession and prevented them from putting together a scoring drive.

“The penalties are what absolutely killed us; they came at the worst possible times,” Rice said. “We would get a drive going, and then we would have one or two penalties and it would just kill any bit of momentum we could get.”

South Greene added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, taking a 28-0 lead and putting the game out of reach of the Blue Devils. The lone touchdown of the night by UCHS was scored by junior Jordan Bridges on a 58-yard touchdown catch from Robbie O’Dell, the junior backup quarterback.

A key factor in the game was South Greene’s efforts to contain senior Blue Devil running back Kody Lewis. The Rebels held Lewis to 61 yards on 15 carries.

“We have to get him in space and create running lanes for him,” Rice said of Lewis. “His lack of production was not on him; I have to do a better job of getting the ball to him and we have to do a better job of blocking our assignments for him.”

Including the yards gained by Lewis, the Blue Devils offense had only 200 yards, compared to the Rebels’ 370, all but 7 of which were on the ground.

Starting quarterback Brock Thompson was 6-15 for 49 yards for UCHS. O’Dell completed 1 pass for 58 yards and a touchdown. Bridges had the touchdown catch for 58 yards. Senior Peyton Whitson had 3 catches for 24 yards. Senior L.J. Mitchell had 1 catch for 18 yards. Junior Evan Huff had 1 catch for 8 yards.

Despite the disappointing loss, Rice knows his team can bounce back.

“We just have to get back to work,” the head coach said. “We know we have talented guys, and they know how to play. We just have to wash this one off, and go play the way we know we are capable of.”

Things won’t get any easier for the Blue Devils this week as the always tough Hampton Bulldogs come to Gentry Stadium.

“They are a really good football team,” Rice said of Hampton. “I have said all summer that these first two weeks of the season could be two of the best, if not the best, teams on our schedule. So we know we are going to have to be ready. We have a couple of key guys who we are going to have to monitor throughout the week to see if they are going to be able to play or not. If that’s the case, then we are going to have to have some guys step up and make a difference for us.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30.

UCHS won’t have a Region 1-AAA challenge until Friday, Sept. 6, when they travel to North Greene.