Battle in the trenches

Scott County offensive linemen, from left, Peyton Saunders, Austin Taylor and Lakelen Eads, must find ways to stave off Frederick Douglass’ big, athletic defensive front and create more running room for the Cardinals when the teams meet again Friday.

Thirty-six to zip.

Being on the business end of that high school football score against your current rival seven weeks ago can trigger either of two, polar-opposite feelings.

It may send a team reeling and trigger a crisis of confidence. Or it may galvanize, motivate and chart a course for the remainder of the season, all the way to and through the rematch.

Scott County’s performance since Sept. 28 gives every indication that the latter is true. We’ll find out if it’s enough Friday night when undefeated Frederick Douglass hosts the district championship round of the KHSAA Class 5A Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

“We’ve got to focus on executing each individual play better. I think we got caught up for some reason, a very poor job of coaching by me, just caught up in the wow factor, like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re getting killed.’

“It reminded me of the LaSalle game two years ago. I don’t know if we’ve ever been beaten as soundly as Douglass beat us the first time. It’s been a long time if we ever have.”

Scott County (10-1) scored a staggering total of 506 points in its wins to this point. 

The Cards were one of the Broncos’ nine shutout victims. It was the first time SC ended a night with a zero on the scoreboard since before most current players were born: Tates Creek, in the 2001 playoffs.

Frederick Douglass (11-0) took advantage of penalties and problems with the snap in SC’s rarely used punt formation to score twice in the opening quarter. Scott County’s only major threat of the night then ended on four consecutive Bronco stops inside the 2-yard line to start the second period.

“I think the first game we got carried away with, ‘What are we going to do? This isn’t working.’ We can’t worry about whether or not we win or lose the game,” McKee said. “If we win, it’s going to be great. If we lose, the world’s not going to come to an end.”

Douglass’ defense, led by Division I bookends Walker Parks and Jager Burton and the swarming likes of Romarion Warner and Davis Joyner around them, made it impossible for SC to dig out of those negative down-and-distance situations.

The law of averages says it will be tough for the Broncos to stymie both halves of the Cards’ inside-outside combination of Philip Garner (1,290 yards, 18 touchdowns) and Bronson Brown (1.012 yards, 16 touchdowns) all night long a second time.

Being true to itself paid dividends for Scott County last year, when it didn’t punch the panic button after a similarly disheartening 28-10 loss and controlled the tempo to win 28-27 in the rematch.

The Cardinals can’t reinvent the wheel at this point in the season. Their success with the November-ready Wing-T for a full generation is indisputable, but it’s also an offense with which SC can ill afford to get behind the chains or be in a hole on the scoreboard.

“That’s the Catch-22. You are who you are,” McKee said. “People that go changing the offense all the time, in my opinion they have no offense. If you’ve seen us play enough, you know what our plays are. In that game we didn’t execute them very well. We didn’t block them very well.

“We allowed their defense to be the aggressor. Now, can you come up with a little wrinkle? Yes. And do we need to have a little wrinkle or two? Yes.”

When McKee does feel compelled to try the skies, he has an efficient option in his senior son, Cade. Eleven of the youngest McKee brother’s 26 pass completions have gone for touchdowns against only one interception.

Micah McClave and Mikaleb Coffey give McKee two big, athletic targets, and Brown is a catch-and-run threat in the open field, as well.

“If it had been a boxing match, we would have been TKO’d,” Jim McKee said of the first meeting. “We’ve got to be more aggressive on offense, and people don’t understand, we have an approach. We can’t just come out slinging it all over everywhere and put ourselves in third-and-10. 

“Again, that’s not who we are. We’ve got to hit a couple of big play-action passes at the right time, and Philip’s got to be able to run it between the tackles, and Bronson’s got to be able to run it on the edges.”

Douglass’ offensive numbers are overshadowed slightly by that smothering defense, in part because the Broncos’ starters have played only half of almost every game.

Led by dual-threat quarterback Josh McClurg, who has accounted for 1,900 total yards and 23 combined touchdowns, Douglass (509 points) is the only 5A team to exceed SC’s point total.

The brother tandem of Darius and Devin Neal has amassed nearly 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.

Oh, and there’s sophomore wide receiver Dane Key, whose circus catch in the end zone highlighted the September shutout. Key already holds a scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky.

“Even though we certainly did some good things defensively in the first game, you can’t really go out there and expect to shut them out,” McKee said. “I think Devin Neal is probably the best overall player we’ve played this year. The quarterback’s really good. Kentucky’s offered Key. I mean, they’re gonna get yards. You can’t expect to be able to go out there and just stonewall them, so we have to be able to move the football.”

The teams have met twice in all three years of Douglass’ existence. SC won a third-round playoff game decisively at home in 2017.

Last year’s rematch took place in this same second installment on the Cardinals’ long road to an appearance in the Class 6A final.

Thanks in part to the KHSAA’s new localized approach to the playoff bracket, one of the top three teams in the state will be headed home after the round of 16.

Frederick Douglass has been ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press 5A media poll all season. Scott County, with seven running-clock victories and a schedule heavy with 6A opponents even after its reclassification, is entrenched at No. 3.

“This week in practice everybody’s been pushing themselves, because this is our season,” Cade McKee said. “Since we got beat by them, we’ve known that if we can get past them, we really like our chances. 

“All we need to do is know the game plan, go over there and execute it. When the game’s over and we look up, whether we won or lost, if we know we gave everything we had, we’ll be satisfied with that.”

Covington Catholic is considered the other favorite in 5A.

To move forward and stay in that discussion, Scott County knows its margin for error is small. Special teams are often ballyhooed as a deciding factor in postseason hopes, and the Cards seek redemption after a poor performance in that category the first time around.

“We just played atrocious in the kicking game. Our punt team was awful. Our kickoff return was awful,” Jim McKee said. “So we have to play better in all three phases of the game, and I have to coach a better game. I have to have our guys playing to win and playing loose.”

Getting the lead, something nobody has done against Douglass since SC was up 20-7 at halftime in last year’s encore, also would do wonders for the Cardinals’ confidence.

The coach said keeping his players focused on the value of every play is even more important than usual.

“My job is to keep them grounded in on, ‘OK, we can’t win or lose this game here in the next 10 minutes,” McKee said. “‘Let’s try to win this play. It’s first-and-10. Let’s try to make it second-and-4.’ (Last time) we should have gotten the ball in when it was 13-0 and we had the ball on the one or two, whatever we had it. We had four cracks and couldn’t get in. That was a bad job of coaching.”

Thirty seniors and its own underrated defense — SC held five opponents to one or zero touchdowns — give the Cards a puncher’s chance. Tradition and the memory of last year’s turnaround can’t hurt, either.

“We’re ready. We’ve been ready since the night we walked off that field. I think it’s just another day,” said junior defensive back Campton Martin, who leads SC with four interceptions. “We have to eliminate turnovers and keep our composure. If we work together and stay together, I think we’ll be fine.”

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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