The game will match the district's top offense and the district's top defense. Somerset (5-4 overall, 5-0 district) has averaged 43 points a game while Harlan (7-2 overall, 5-0 district) has allowed just over 14 a contest.
Somerset has built its offense around senior quarterback Ross Deaton, who has completed 128 of 217 passes for 2,508 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. Deaton's favorite target is junior wide receiver John Cole, who has 57 catches for 1,398 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“He's the fastest kid I think I've seen, and on top of that he runs great routes,” Harlan coach J.B. Donahue said of Cole. “He also goes after the ball well and has good hands.”
Several of the Jumpers' opponents have focused their defensive efforts on stopping Cole, only to watch someone else in Somerset's arsenal make big plays.
“John is a super receiver, but we have a lot of confidence in Kyle Moore and John Coomer and Josh Parent, our big 6-6 receiver,” Somerset coach Jay Cobb said. “We have some other options, and Ross has done a pretty good job in finding those kids when people do try to take Cole away.
“When you do make a defensive choice to shut down John Cole, you're opening up something else for us - you're either giving us the run or going to give us another receiver. It's our job to try to find out who that guy is, and Ross has done a good job of that of late.”
Donahue knows the Jumpers aren't a one-man show and is concerned about Somerset's running attack, which features senior fullback Kenny Hughes (452 yards) and Deaton (303 yards).
“They've gotten better running the football,” he said. “We've got to try and limit (Cole), but the big thing for us is that we can't let them line up and run the football. We have to stop the running game.
“Deaton is a big, strong kid. Both him and the running backs, we have to be able to limit how much they can do on us running the football.”
Cobb has been impressed by the Harlan defense, which has limited opponents to one touchdown or less in four games this season.
“They are real solid defensively. What you have to do offensively is take what they are going to give you,” he said. “They'll come after us with a little bit of pressure. I'm sure they'll try to get up in Cole's face and get a jam on the line of scrimmage and make sure they have safety help over the top. We've seen a great deal of that, but they are by far the best defense in the district we've faced.
“It's the same old Harlan up front. They have very good D-line play, and linebacker play is very solid. They also have a three-year starter in (Will) Pope, at safety, who has a good nose for the football.”
Keeping the ball away from the Jumpers as much as possible would also be a big help to the Harlan defense.
“As explosive as they are, we have to play well defensively,” Donahue said. “But I also think a big key also will be our offense being able to sustain some drives and put points on the board.”
While Somerset's offense has received plenty of praise, the defense drew criticism, especially early in the year when the Jumpers opened with four straight losses against a brutal non-district schedule that included Franklin County, Southwestern, Warren East and Danville.
“That's been a contentious point for us all year,” Cobb said. “I do feel we've gotten better the last four weeks. I don't like it when people say it's the difference in the competition. I don't believe that. When I look at film, I see us better technically and in better spots than where we were. Our D-line play has gotten better and our linebacker play has gotten a little bit better.”
Even though Harlan hasn't been as explosive offensively as his team, Cobb is concerned about the Dragons' ability to move the ball on the ground and in the air. Senior running Jon Lundy has rushed for 1,003 yards this season while junior quarterback Chase Jones has passed for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns, including a six-touchdown effort last week against Pineville.
“This team has more balance than the other football teams we've seen in the district,” Cobb said.
The Dragons compiled over 500 yards in a 62-20 win over the Mountain Lions.
“I think that was probably the best game we've had all year as far as achieving the balance we're looking for,” Donahue said. “We hope we've got everything clicking. We had some success last week running and passing, and that's what we've got to have.”
With the Kentucky High School Athletic Association changing the playoff format this year to have teams playing within their district the first two weeks, it seems likely that the Jumpers and Dragons will meet again in two weeks.
“I hate the fact we're sitting here playing a game, and this is very likely a game we'll play again in two weeks,” Cobb said. “You sit there and kind of know you're going to see them, so you may keep a couple of things you might like to do under wraps. But we're going to do what we have to do to try to win the football game, and I'm sure J.B. is, too.”
“We've got to take care of business this week first and worry about them again when we get there,” Donahue said.
Cawood at Cumberland
Two teams hoping to carry some momentum into the playoffs will square off in a non-district game Friday at 7:30.
Cawood (3-6 overall, 1-3 district) clinched a playoff berth with a 27-14 win Friday at Knott Central, but the Trojans haven't won two straight in at least two years, and coach Frank Smith is looking for a better performance than last week from his team heading into a probable matchup with Middlesboro next week.
“We won a football game, and we're tickled to death to win, but we didn't play well against Knott County,” Smith said. “Good football teams play their best football this time of year. If you're going to be a playoff contender, it's important you play well this time of year. We have to focus on doing what we do the best we can do it.”
“We want to build momentum going into the playoffs,” Cumberland coach Jon Reynolds said. “We're just like Cawood. We'd like to get the ‘W.'”
Cumberland (6-3 overall, 3-3 district) is coming off a 48-41 loss to Williamsburg, and Reynolds also hopes his team will pick up its play before traveling to Somerset or Harlan next week.
“I don't think the kids have their heads down any,” Reynolds said. “We looked on the film and saw where we messed up defensively. But we've played three or four like that this season that could have went either way. Sometimes you get them and sometimes you don't.”
Unlike the past two weeks, when the Trojans were able to focus their defensive efforts on Leslie County's Ryan Howard or Knott Central's Bobby Owens, Cumberland presents several problems for the Trojans' defense. Sophomore fullback Nathaniel Gilliam (851 yards rushing), senior tailback Michael Washington (664) and sophomore quarterback Zach Blanton (988 yards passing) lead the Skins' versatile attack.
“They do a good job of mixing their offense up,” Smith said. “The fullback can hurt you, and both their tailbacks can hurt you. The Blanton kid can also hurt you, running or throwing.
“It's a lot different. We could kind of focus our attention on one person, and you can't do that against Cumberland.”
“It's not just one guy for us, which is what we try to do,” Reynolds said. “We try and move it around to different people.”
Freshman tailback T.J. Green has developed into the Trojans' most consistent weapon with 697 yards rushing, including a 169-yard, three-touchdown effort against Knott Central. Senior quarterback Mikey Hensley and senior fullback Michael White have also played well, both offensively and defensively.
“They look pretty physical on the line, and it seems like they've established T.J. Green as their back,” Reynolds said. “Hensley can hurt you running or throwing.”
Cumberland rolled over Cawood 42-19 last year in a game that wasn't as close as the final score would indicate. Smith said that loss should give the Trojans even more incentive to play well Friday.
“They treated us any way they wanted to and made us like it,” he said.
Evarts at Pineville
While the Dragons and Jumpers are playing for first place, the Wildcats and Mountain Lions will be trying to avoid the cellar of District 7 in a 7:30 p.m. game.
“Every win is important, but it's been a while since we've won a district game. It would be very important to come back and get a win against a team that beat us pretty handily last year,” Pineville coach Bart Elam said. “That would be real big going into the off-season for our young guys.”
“It's real important, especially for these seniors. They've never lost to them,” Evarts coach Ovie Canady said. “We want to close it out on a good note and have something to build on for the winter and next year. Not many teams get to win their last game of the year.”
Evarts (1-8 overall, 0-5 district) is led by senior running backs Adam Helton (631 yards rushing) and Jimmy Pike (328) and senior quarterback Derek Cochran (837).
“Evarts is physical. Evarts is going to come out and hit you,” Elam said. “They aren't as big as some Evarts teams in the past, but they have two or three dandy running backs, and they'll play hard every play. We have to try and match their intensity.”
Pineville (3-6 overall, 0-5 district) features senior quarterback Zac Churchwell and senior fullback Ben Johnson.
“Their quarterback is pretty good, and they have a pretty good fullback,” Canady said. “The biggest thing with (Churchwell) is the run. If we take that away, we should be in good shape.
“We've had success scoring against a lot of people lately, but we just haven't been able to stop anybody. Defense will be the key for us.”
Avoiding mistakes, according to Elam, is the key for the Lions, who had seven turnovers last week.
“We have to win the turnover battle,” Elam said. “The last three weeks we've made some bad decisions, not catching the football and not breaking down and making tackles. But the bottom line is we have to take care of the football, and we've got to make them make some mistakes.”