Pulaski County’s defensive front has played strong this season. Pictured here (from left) are Chayton Rollins, Zeke Surber, Clay Phillips and Diego Turner. (Antonio Nottingham/PC TD Club)
The preliminaries are now over. Now the hard work begins.
After a 4-0 start with no winning margin less than 21 points – and a bye week – the Pulaski County Cougars face the two toughest tests of their abbreviated 2021 season.
Last week’s bye couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cougars and head coach Mark Dixon let his players take full advantage.
“We practiced a little bit early in the week then took some time off,” Dixon said Tuesday. “We got some fundamental stuff out of the way that first day on Monday, and then we took a break. Just kind of lifted weights.
“We’d had a pretty long stretch there with the games being bunched together and hadn’t had any time off. So, I thought the kids needed a little bit of a break,” he said.
A week with no game always helps players get over the bumps and bruises of the season and had to help junior running back Keyonte Kennedy who’s been playing with a heavy cast as he recovers from a broken hand.
Dixon is hopeful one of his primary weapons on offense is cast-free come Friday’s game time.
“I’m not 100 percent sure yet, but the last I heard I think it will be off,” Dixon said.
Despite the cast, in the Cougars’ 56-0 win two weeks ago against Blacksburg, Kennedy was a big producer, rushing for 114 yards on 19 carries.
Production, however, isn’t all Dixon worries about when a running back like Kennedy carries the ball in one hand and a cast on the other.
“You kind of hold your breath. You always worry about turnovers with that big cast like that,” he said.
Other than Kennedy, Dixon said the rest of the Cougars are good to go.
“We’re 100 percent healthy, knock on wood.”
While the Cougars have dominated their opponents so far this season, Dixon doesn’t believe his team is getting too confident.
“No, I don’t think so. The kids are certainly aware of what we’re facing this week. They’ve seen some film and they know the challenges are huge,” Dixon said.
“I think that’s kind of leveled us out and got us back focused on the things we need to focus on to have a chance to win.”
Friday’s opponent – Division 5 power and old rival Patrick Henry won’t be a pushover.
The Patriots come out of Roanoke as the top team in Region 5D, boasting a VHSL power rating of 23.60 – just ahead of Pulaski County’s 23.50 this week and not too far behind Salem’s 25.50.
Coached by Alan Fiddler, they’re 4-1 overall and in the River Ridge District, and their only loss came in week three when they fell at Salem, 34-17.
The Patriots’ four wins came against Hidden Valley (14-6), Blacksburg (56-0), Cave Spring (32-18) and Christiansburg (41-21).
Friday night’s game in Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium is the Patriots’ last of the regular season.
The Patriots are led by VMI-bound senior quarterback Roy Gunn who passed for 188 on 7-of-12 passing last week in their win over Christiansburg.
“They’re great in the skill positions. A veteran quarterback who’s elite. He’s going to be a college quarterback and you can tell he’s played a ton of football,” Dixon said about Gunn and the Patriot offense.
“Then they’ve got big speed on the outside. All of them have been with the QB for a couple of years with the exception of one of them. There’s four of them. All four wide receivers can flat out get open and they all can fly,” Dixon added.
One of the Patriots’ stars in last week’s win included freshman running back Arjuan Webb who scored three touchdowns and ran for 189 yards in the game – 157 coming in the first half.
One of his biggest runs was a 76-yard carry that led to one Patriot score.
Patriot receiver Taeshawn Webb hauled in two touchdown passes – his first on a 94-yard reception.
“The challenge is they’re going to spread the field and be able to make plays. Their line has big strong kids. They have a complex system they run and they’re good at it,” Dixon said.
To win, the Cougars need to keep running the ball and run time off the clock.
Plus, the Cougars have been victimized by their own penalties in their first four games. That needs to stop, according to Dixon.
“We’ll have to run the ball and definitely limit the number of possessions they get. They’re just explosive.
“And, we’re going to have to really get more disciplined with our penalties and cut that out. We’re not going to be able to continue to overcome the pre-snap penalties – jumping offsides and those types of things,” Dixon added.
Game time is 7 p.m. in Dobson Stadium.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot