The Walker Valley defense swarms a Cumberland County runner in the first half last week inside "The Corral." The Mustangs will be looking for their second win in a row on the road against Lenoir City, Friday (Banner Photo: Richard Roberts).
The Mustangs are already in the playoffs, that's a given with only four teams in the region. But, one of the team goals from Day 1 has been to host a playoff game instead of merely playing in one.
Walker Valley can take a big step toward that goal with a win at Lenoir City Friday night in a Region 4 5-A must-win game if the dream is to continue to hold water.
“It's week-to-week and we're only going to take it one game at a time, but this is for sure as big a game for this season as I can remember having. Without this one, we can't keep that dream alive,” Mustangs coach Drew Akins pointed out. “Our players understand the magnitude of it. They understand what we're trying to do. I'm excited to give them the opportunity to host. If we continue to go down the path we are going, I feel really good about where we're at as a program.”
Akins acknowledged the Mustangs cannot assume anything as they look to pull off their first back-to-back victory since a string of five wins in a row in 2016. He related Walker Valley has to show up every day ready to get better and better as a team. He likes what he has seen the last three weeks and feels the team is going to continue to improve.
Last week against Cumberland County, the Mustangs came out of a three-plus-hour weather delay and took control of the game on offense and particularly defensively to beat the Jets 69-30. Akins is hoping that confidence and momentum carries over to this week.
“It is definitely something we talked about with our defense. All that happened we did was start playing our fits right. We were able to get on film Monday and go over the good fits and the bad fits an make sure they understand the ways they are going to find success,” said the coach. “The one thing I did like about our defense the other night was getting three turnovers and a (defensive) touchdown. Anytime you do that you put yourself in a position where your chances of winning go up exponentially when you score a non-offensive touchdown.”
Offensively, before play was halted, the Mustangs (2-3, 0-1 Region 4-5A) put together a string of two touchdowns on two offensive plays wrapped around a scoop-and-score by the defense. Akins said knowing his team can score quickly helps score a great deal of momentum. The downside was the quick scores led to a little too much confidence Cumberland County took advantage of.
“We've got to hold onto that momentum. We still don't do a great job with sudden change whether it's good or bad,” he said. “We threw 21 points up quick. Sometimes it gets you to relax a little and we need to make sure we never relax. That we never take for granted a ballgame is over or a ballgame is in hand. We just have to keep playing until we (the coaches) call the dogs off. We can never relax.”
The Panthers of Lenoir City (1-5, 0-2) may not be a team of superstars, but they definitely know how to scheme an opponent in order to set up an unexpected attack.
“They scheme a lot. They've got a lot of formations and a lot of passing routes out of those formations,” said Akins. “The prep this week is making sure we get all our kids all the information and make sure they understand they know how to line up. They try to get leverage on you.”
Akins explained the Panthers scheme to get a defense to line up incorrectly and strike with leverage at the week spot left by the wrong formation.
“We've got to make sure we do a good job of lining up, make sure we do an outstanding job of understanding what they are in, staying calm, getting the call and getting lined up,” he said. “After that, you just play football. Nothing else changes, it's just pre-snap alignment. If they get you on that they'll hurt you with it.”
Akins confirmed the Panthers are adept at stopping a run game defensively, but feels the athletic advantage he feels the Mustangs have in the passing game will go far in helping Walker Valley to a victory.
The Mustangs will again rely a great deal on quarterback Tucker Pope and the herd of receivers he has to choose from. Pope threw for 358 yards in last week's win and will be looking for another good night through the air.
“I think we have some advantages in the pass game, just because we have so many athletes. We have six receivers that can catch the ball and when you have than many that can catch it, it makes it really hard to defend the whole field,” Akins said.
All six Walker Valley receivers have more than 100 yards for the season. Three have more than 200 hundred yards and one has more than three hundred yards worth of catches.
The win over the Jets last week has done much to improve the mental outlook of the Mustangs who, after winning the first game of the season, were emotionally and physically not ready to go against Bradley Central. Akins feels good about the way his team has turned the page from the win.
“We came back Monday and had a little pep in our step. We kind of understand how to deal with this win a little better,” Akins said. “We still have the excitement of the win, but we also know how to move forward now and look to the next week. They have had a lot of energy and effort in practice. They are starting to buy into what we are preaching to them which is really fun to see.”
Akins' pride in his program has extended beyond the field. More than a third of the team headed to Bradley Central last weekend to support the Mustangs band in a competition at Bradley Central.
“It's just another of the culture things that are happening. The reason they showed up for the program Saturday is because the band has shown up for us over and over and over. They (the band) don't ask for any recognition, they just show up. They play and they try and support us,” said Akins. “Our players felt like they needed to return that favor to our band. Some of the culture changes that are happening at our school have been fun to watch. Being able to talk to teachers and the excitement around all the programs has been a fun start to our year and we're hoping to build off that for the second half of the year.”
Walker Valley's Griffin Broome (2) heads toward the end zone in the first half against Cumberland County during last week's non-region matchup. (Banner Photo: Richard Roberts)