By David Knox
CLAY — Don’t expect a repeat of 2015’s Homewood-Clay playoff game.
The Cougars built a nice lead in that one and then needed a goal-line stand to preserve a 40-39 win on their way to the state finals.
The Cougars, who’ve recorded a school-record four shutouts and are allowing just 12.5 points per game, are meeting a mirror-image in Homewood, who’s allowed 7 points or less to six teams and is giving up just 11.3 points a game.
The Cougars wear silver and blue, and the Patriots sport red and blue. Both may be simply black and blue when it’s over Friday night.
The Cougars (9-2) and Patriots (10-1) kick off at 7 p.m. at Homewood’s Waldrop Stadium.
“It may be one of those 7-6 games,” Cougars coach Drew Gilmer said. “Their strength, obviously, is their defense. No matter what, their defense is going to keep the game close no matter what happens on offense. That’s their thing. If they have an off-night offensively, their defense does a good job and makes adjustments so they can find a way to win.”
The Patriots’ only loss was something of a shocker, a 13-7 defeat in week 10 to Paul Bryant. They trailed Fort Payne in their playoff opener 21-0 at half before rallying for a 28-21 win.
They knocked off defending 6A champ Ramsay 38-0, keying on turnovers and special teams play, in midseason.
“I think for us, offensively, is we can’t turn the ball over,” Gilmer said. “We’ve got to protect the football. We’ve got to have positive plays, because we have a hard time making it up when we have negative plays. That just doesn’t fit us.
“If we can end every possession with a kick – whether it’s a punt, a field goal or an extra point after a touchdown, we’ll be all right.”
Gilmer stresses it’s all about moving the chains and wearing Homewood’s defense down and keep the Patriots’ offense off the field.
The Cougars have leaned on the running game more than in the past. Quentin Young has rushed for 809 yards on 154 carries and scored 11 touchdowns. Curtis Blakely has added 539 yards on 88 rushes and has four touchdowns.
But Willie Miller has also thrown for more than 1,800 yards and has 20 TD passes and is also a threat when he pulls the ball down. Rod McCloud and Terrill Cole are his main receivers, with a combined 15 TD catches.
The defense has been stellar for most of the season. The Cougars have been stingy on third down, allowing just a 20 percent success rate, and they’ve also forced 29 turnovers – 16 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. They’ve sacked opposing quarterbacks 26 times.
The ringleaders have been linebackers D’Markus Davis, Derrick Bean and Josh McIntosh, linemen DJ Dale, Kendall Smith and James Theus, defensive end Corey Lee and backs Andru Ransaw and Jaylin Mack. Mack has five interceptions and Ransaw three. JaMarlin Sewell has been the key loss, going down earlier in the season, as did lineman LC Purifoy.
“We’ve got some talented players over there. They’ve done a good job all year, flying to the football, making sure tackles, being in the right place. If we just stay sound and do our assignments and be able to make adjustments, I think we’ll be fine.”
Homewood has relied on strong defensive play from C.D. Daniels, a 6-2, 180-pound defensive back who is committed to Memphis. The defensive line is not especially big, but the linebackers and secondary are fast.
Offensively, the Patriots had to adjust some when leading rusher Nick McCoy went down with an injury in midseason. David Robertson has taken his place, and he rallied the Pats last week with 139 yards rushing and three touchdowns to pull out the first-round win over Fort Payne.
Quarterback Larkin Williams has good size, a strong arm and mobility. His top target is 6-3 TyShawn Buckner.
Gilmer knows it’ll be a challenge. “They’ve got a really good football team, they’re well-coached and disciplined. They don’t make a lot of mistakes to hurt themselves. It’s going to be fun. We’re looking forward to it.”