Last year the Walker Valley Mustangs dealt the Cleveland Blue Raiders a 34-0 loss in a weather-shortened game. (File Photo: George Norkus)
Cleveland and Walker Valley fans who remember last year’s torrential downpour with a side of football can breath a sigh of relief — this year’s Mustangs versus Blue Raiders game has a zero percent chance of rain at kickoff, at least according to the latest forecasts.
The 2015 meeting between the two rivals resulted in a 34-0 win for the northern Bradley County squad in a game that was called off due to the weather with three minutes left in the third quarter. It also marked the first time in Scott Cummings’ head coaching career in which a team of his was shut out.
“Last year was a weird deal. We were not great, but at the same time it was a monsoon and the game got shortened. They had already won that game before it was shortened, though,” Cummings reflected. “We’ll have to play really good football to win (this year).”
Playing “really good football” will prove to be one of the biggest challenges the Raiders face Friday, as they are now just two weeks into a completely new offense.
Wide Receiver turned quarterback Skyler Davis, who had four practice days to make his transition, did an admirable job at the helm last week against Signal Mountain; he completed 5-of-9 passes for two touchdowns and 140 yards.
“Skyler did a good job last week in his first game at quarterback, but there are still a lot of little things that come with playing that position that he’s going to need to continue to grow at,” the Cleveland coach commented.
Davis faces a much tougher challenge in a Walker Valley team that has had the same core group of skill players for three years now.
Mustang junior QB Kolten Gibson currently has a 64 percent completion rate and has thrown for 979 yards and eight touchdowns.
Gibson has a multitude of targets to choose from on any given night, with senior receiver Cooper Melton proving to be the favorite at the moment. Melton has six touchdowns and 364 yards on 19 catches and is averaging 19.2 yards per reception.
Walker Valley’s talented receiving corps includes senior UTC-commit Bryce Nunnelly, who has two TDs and 277 yards on 13 receptions. The quick-footed Nunnelly is currently averaging 21.3 yards per reception. Zach Eslinger has been another reliable target this season, with 216 yards and two touchdowns on 19 catches.
Mustang backup quarterback Noah Davis, who had his chance to shine in a 49-28 win against Coffee County, has completed 12-of-14 passes for three TDs and 177 yards. Davis has also reached paydirt three times by foot, having 93 yards on 13 carries.
Much like last year, Walker Valley enters Friday with a two-game winning streak.
“Our offense is playing how we felt they were capable of playing all along, and our defense is stepping up each week and getting a little bit better,” Mustang head coach Glen Ryan said. “We’ve been playing team football, we haven’t been making mistakes and hurting ourselves with turnovers and costly penalties. We need to keep that going if we’re going to continue having success.
“We want to be consistent and continue to iron out the little things. The day you stop trying to get better is the day you get beat. We need to be constantly improving.”
While it has been a struggle for Cleveland to adapt a new offense in the midst of its season, it has also added a unique challenge for their remaining opponents — another unknown factor.
“We did what we did last week in four practice days. We’re still a work in progress and hopefully there’s still a bit of mystery to it,” Cummings stated. “They’ve got last week’s film and also know that by moving a receiver to quarterback, we’re a little limited in what we can do schematically.”
Coach Ryan has been tasked with preparing his team for a meeting with the “new” Blue Raiders based on that one week of film footage.
“It’s kind of tough, we just have the one film with them running their new offense against Signal Mountain and they looked really good there,” Ryan commented. “They moved (Davis) to quarterback, who is definitely a good athlete, to go along with all the other athletes that they have. Moving (Wykle) over to run some receiver, he’s a threat to go any time with his speed.”
Cleveland may have had to regroup on the fly, but Ryan knows that the Raiders’ sheer athleticism still makes them a threat.
“That’s a tough situation for anybody to be in, but the one thing they have is athletes,and they’ve found a way to plug their athletes in and still make them very productive offensively. Our job is going to be trying to do our best to contain their speed and not let them get loose. We have to take away the big plays and make them drive the ball on us,” the Mustang coach detailed. “It’s hard to simulate that speed in practice. We’ve played some teams that have some speed and have played some teams that have some good athletes, but I don’t know if we’ve played anybody that has quite their speed, or as many different weapons as they have.
“Our offense needs to do a good job of controlling the ball and putting points on the board, and the best defense in this case is going to be a good offense,” Ryan continued. “We need to allow our defense to get some blows and when they are out there do a good job of stopping their speed. If we don’t do a good job with that, it could be a long night.”
The Raiders will face a similar challenge, since the Mustangs have a talented, athletic bunch of players as well.
“Walker Valley’s offense is pretty multiple in what they can run and pass, so it’s a little different animal than what we’ve seen these past two weeks,” Cummings explained. “I always think that in high school football you have to stop the run first. I don’t think there’s any doubt that if teams can run the football on you, they’re going to continue to do that and it’s demoralizing the more you let them do it. We’ve definitely got to stop the run first.
“We’ve just got to learn how to play at our level all of the time. We have to not be so inconsistent,” Cummings continued. “We have to play Cleveland High School football all the time and make people adapt and change to us, not us adapting and changing to them.”
Mustang running back Alex King has racked up six TDs from a total of 287 yards on 61 carries. Mason Oran has proven to be solid on the run as well, with a total of 200 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
Cummings admits he is still concerned about his team’s ability to grind out those 3- and 4-yard plays.
“Right now I’m nervous about going up against any defense in our current situation. Their 3-3 stack defensive scheme does present some challenges to us by the very nature of it. There’s usually one linebacker in there that you can’t account for which is a concern for sure,” the Cleveland coach said. “I know that Walker Valley is going to make us grind it out and not allow the big plays — we’ll see if we’ve grown up any.”
Raider running back Micaleous Elder covered 448 yards on 38 carries and has made it into the end zone six times. Keegan Jones has 266 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries.
Coming into Week 7, Cleveland has a 4-2 record and Walker Valley has a record of 3-2. The region matchup will not only have bragging rights up for grabs, but also the possibility of playoff eligibility.
“It’s going to be a tough, hard-fought battle. Both teams have a lot to play for right now — this game is going to put one team in the forefront as far as making the playoffs, and the other team is going to be having a hard time of it,” Ryan declared.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. at Walker Valley on Friday night, with the gates opening at 5:30.