Friendship Christian School, the defending Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Class 2A state football champion, has averaged a whopping 44 points per game this season en route to Friday’s semifinal playoff showdown with Boyd-Buchanan.
The Bucs (12-1) have a stout-hearted defense that has been stingy, allowing 12.1 points per outing.
Something will have to give when the two once-beaten powerhouses – they last met in the 2011 quarterfinals – collide in a playoff semifinal at Friendship Christian in Lebanon. Game time is 8 p.m. Eastern.
Two key players for Boyd-Buchanan going against the Commanders and talented junior quarterback A.J. Long are senior inside linebackers Austin Hall and Stephen Ingram.
“They set the defense, call the fronts and they’re instrumental in making sure we’re lined up on every play,” Bucs coach Grant Reynolds said. “They’re really fast and do a good job finding the ball and making plays.”
The Bucs gave up more than 21 points just once this season – Class 4A Maplewood got a season-high 36 in a 20-point win on Oct. 19. In three playoff wins, the Bucs have given up a combined 38 points to Rockwood, Oneida and Grace Christian of Knoxville.
Take away Maplewood’s point production and Boyd-Buchanan’s defense against the score drops two full points to 10.1.
“We’ve played great,” said Hall, a 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pounder. “We’ve been coached perfectly and we’ve done our assignments to help each other make plays. The defensive line is helping keep offensive linemen off the linebackers, so we’ve just had a really good team effort.”
“I think I’ve been playing better in recent games, but it’s not about me. It’s about the team.”
The Bucs deploy in a 4-4 defensive front and that has proven advantageous over the years for Reynolds, who is 60-28 in seven season as Boyd-Buchanan’s coach after serving nine years as an assistant under Robert Akin.
Boyd-Buchanan shut out Chattanooga Christian and East Ridge to start the season and added a third in a 53-point shellacking of Unaka. On three other occasions the Bucs had one-score – either six or seven points – efforts against Silverdale Baptist, Chattanooga Grace and Oneida.
“The 4-4 is kind of unorthodox,” Reynolds said, “but it gives us an eight-man box and you always have to stop the run first. That’s why we do what we do on defense.”
Since 2000, the Bucs have won four of six games in the semifinals and the wins and losses offer a crystal clear glimpse into how defense plays a role in advancing to title games.
In the four wins, Boyd-Buchanan outscored Cloudland (2002), Christian Academy of Knoxville (2003, the Bucs’ championship season), Coalfield (2004) and Rockwood (2009) by a combined 156-27.
Conversely, in the two semifinal losses the Bucs came up short against Christ Presbyterian Academy and Signal Mountain by a combined 92-24.
And if the Bucs are to reach their third championship game – they’re 1-1 in the previous two – they must contend with Friendship’s dual-threat quarterback.
“We have to (focus) on him,” the 5-10, 170-pound Ingram said, “but he’s not the only guy that makes that team go. They’ve got a great offensive line that blocks for him, good receivers and a very good running back to go along with him.”
In last week’s 49-12 beat-down of Marion County, Long passed for 233 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 100 yards in the first half.
The 6-1, 185-pound Long transferred from St. Pius X in Bangor, Pa., after his sophomore season in which he amassed 4,600 total yards and 63 touchdowns, and as a junior already has college scholarship offers from Arizona, Syracuse and UCLA.
Heading into Friday’s game, Long has 2,243 yards passing and 33 touchdowns, with just one interception and 579 yards rushing and six scores and presents a major challenge for the Bucs.
“He’s a great player,” Hall said. “It’s not just him, though. I think everybody on that team is a great player. We have to play our best to beat them.”
The Commanders, ranked No. 3 in the latest murphyfair.com poll, are on quite a roll, winning 19 of their last 20 games dating back to last season and making their 21st playoff appearance since 1982.
They are 2-0 in semifinal games, beating Hampton, 24-7, in 2006 and Oliver Springs, 39-6, in 2011. The win over Oliver Springs came one week after Friendship edged Boyd-Buchanan, 21-20, in overtime on the Bucs’ home field.
In its 11 wins, Friendship’s lowest point total has been 31 points against Trousdale County, but the Commanders won by, uh, 31 points. Friendship scored a season-high 68 points against Watertown and won by 42.
Along the way, the Commanders scored in the 40s nine times.
Gordonsville, the top-ranked Class 1A team, handed Friendship its lone loss, a 28-21 decision in Week 3.
Clearly, Long makes the Commanders click.
“They’re a solid team,” Reynolds said. “They have returning veterans on both sides of the ball. The quarterback is really solid; he runs it well and throws it well. There are some good people around him, but he’s the real deal.”
Hall believes the Bucs’ defense is playing with confidence and can control the Commnaders’ high-octane offense, which scores points in bunches.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen against us,” Hall said.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)