Locker Room: How big was that? It was BIG!

    Danville– Pulaski County defeated GW-Danville, 17-14 in the opening round of the Region 4D playoffs at Averitt University Friday evening. Everybody knows it was a big, big victory, but how many really know how big? It was a great victory for the players, and the celebration by the team and coaches made it obvious just how much that win meant. It was the first time in a long time since I’ve seen a Cougar football team as genuinely happy as they were at the end of the game in Danville.
      The win solidifies many things. First, Pulaski County is no longer a team that just wins random games. It now has won a game against a quality opponent, on the road, in the playoffs, and it was a game that really mattered. Win it, anyway you can. Win it pretty, ugly, get lucky. This was a game that you just wanted badly to win, anyway you possibly could. The Cougars won it, won it the right way, and it was not lucky. A bit of an upset? I’ll give you that, but I’m not how big an upset it was at all.
      It was indeed hard earned. There were ups and downs. There were areas you hoped for better success, but good teams like GW-Danville aren’t going to make it easy. They must not have felt Pulaski County’s passing game could beat them. They stacked the “box.” Sometimes as many as eight defenders at the line of scrimmage. Blocking eight makes it a bit tough, when you have to block more players than you have, it’s virtually impossible, but you try. There were not huge numbers in this game, nobody rushed for a ton of yards, nobody set any records, and the reason was both teams defended well and very physical. Every yard gained came with a price tag.
     It was after 1 am Saturday morning before everything finally settled down. At that point those left realized how tired they were and needed to go home. But there’s a good tired and a bad tired. This one was good. Linebacker coach Buddy Ratcliffe sat in a corner looking a bit bleached. He complained about riding the bus. Danville and back on a bus ain’t like riding Amtrak. He wanted to know how many yards the defense allowed. He then bragged about his players. “We put a hat on “em. Got after ’em. Danville was tough, would see space, but the boys closed down the space in a hurry. We played well.” Yes, Buddy, your boys played well, quick, and physical. Job well done.
     This is also Stephen James fifth season as head football coach at Pulaski County and this was his biggest victory. All wins are big, people forget that, but there are wins that count more. This keeps the careers of a bunch of seniors alive for at least one more week. This was a win in the playoffs against a good team. This is the type win that solidifies that Pulaski County football is maybe headed back to where it once was, and that’s exciting. James’ teams have knocked on the door a couple times. Last night in Danville, the Cougars knocked the door down.
      But how big? How big was this? How about the biggest win since Jack Turner’s team in 2008 made a run for the state, and knocked off Salem twice in the same season, 34-24, and 38-0. That’s 10 years ago and that’s pretty danged big.
      “This is a great win,” said James. “It’s great for the kids, great for the coaches, and great for the program. Any playoff win is always a big deal, but you get a special feeling from this one. We didn’t do everything as well as we would have liked, but the team played hard. I’m really proud of the kids. But Danville wanted to win too. Man, we had to fight for this thing, but that makes even more meaningful.”
      Now there is a little rematch on tap. Next Friday at Christiansburg the Cougars will play Blacksburg. The Bruins won the first game, 21-14. It would be accurate to say it was a very contested game. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that Blacksburg did not put in a request to play the Cougars again.
     “We really need to enjoy this one,” said James. “We really  do, but we don’t have much time. We need to get a little rest over the weekend, and come back Monday ready to work. We are fortunate that we don’t have any real injury problems. A lot of times at this stage of the season, you can’t say that, but our kids are still very excited to be playing, and we’re healthy. so we’ll load it up and see what we can do.”
      There are always reasons why things go a certain way in a football game. This game was very evident of that for both teams. Pulaski County could not run the football. Other than a single 40-yard run that popped out by Gage Mannon, the running attack was almost nil. And Pulaski County really wanted to be able to run the football. Mannon finished with 68, but only 28 on his other nine carries, and Jakari Finley had to run 21 times to gain just 58 yards, but he did have two one-yard scoring runs.
       But there was a reason why it was so hard, a couple reasons in fact. First, Danville plays good defense and had allowed just 11 points a game all season, plus they jammed the box, sometimes having even as many as eight players at the line of scrimmage with the backers jumping in the gaps, and they were big too. At times there were just too many defenders to block.  But it opened up some other things. You take something away from a team, you run the risk of opening up another opportunity.
      “By putting so many players up at the line of scrimmage and bringing their inside linebackers it sure make it tough on us at the line of scrimmage, but it also meant they had to play man coverage in the secondary, and the stalemate at the line of scrimmage with all those players, gave us space to work with in the passing game. Danville could not cover E.J. Horton one on one. And because of the man coverage and the field was spread, E.J. had room to work. Both Kade Akers and Horton had good games for us tonight. And our defense really played hard as usual. We got after them,” added James.
     It should also be noted that as difficult as it was for the Cougar offensive line to get GW blocked in the running game, except for a couple occasions Akers had time to throw. So both defenses basically had the same philosophy. Pressure. Akers completed passes to Horton six times in the game. The first three went for first down plays, each on third down and let to the first touchdown. The next big catch on a crossing pattern over the middle for 14 and another first down allowed Ryan Castle to kick a 46-yard field goal.
      Horton dropped a wide open touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. It was an agonizing failure, but the Cougar defense forced another three and out and after a Danville punt the first play was play-action Akers to Horton for 37 and a first and goal at the seven. It wasn’t just about how many catches for whatever yards, Horton’s catches were all big, crucial plays. This time it was perfect, he wasn’t wide open like he was on his drop. He had to go up on a full gallup and take the ball away from a GW defender, a really good catch. And the offensive front gave Akers enough time to execute the passing game.
      The two schools have now played 14 times over the past 45 years. Pulaski County has an 8-6 lead in the series now. That’s a nice peace of history because it means you have fared well against one of the more recognized football programs in the state.
     GW quarterback Carlos Poole, gracious in defeat I want to add, classy athlete, was difficult to stop. But like the Danville defense was determined to stop the Cougar running attack, Pulaski County intended to do the same vs. GW. Poole got 58 yrds, but it took him 21 carries to get them, that’s 2.7 yards per carry, but I will say it was a quick 2.7. Great job by the Cougar defense again. Three fumble recoveries were big too, Austin Gallimore, Bryant Worrell, and Finley. The total yardage was 287-250. Pulaski County had 57 snaps in the game, GW 53. Pretty even. Those two extra turnovers were big. They gave Pulaski County a little extra possession time. In such games, there are no small statistics. Everything is big, and this time Pulaski County came up big.
     Now, let’s load up for a short trip to play Blacksburg…..one more time.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot
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