It’s a good bet Larkey’s philosophy will be put to the test Friday by the visiting Estill County Engineers in a showdown for second place in District 6 of 3A. The winner secures a home playoff game and avoids Breathitt County until the Region 3 finals.
“It’s definitely important. That home field advantage in the first round is a big deal and puts you in the opposite bracket of Breathitt if you are running away from that kind of team,” Estill County coach Mike Jones said. “It’s a little easier route to a state championship.”
Very few teams, if any, run more and pass less than Estill County (6-1), which has rolled up 2,370 yards on the ground and has passed for only 120 out of a double-wing set that features three running backs and two tight ends.
“They’ve played really better than I imagined,” Jones said. “We wanted to spread the carries out a little more. We thought it would make us better as a team, and it has.”
“They run double tight ends foot to foot, and it’s a lot of power stuff pulling guards and tackles and leading through the hole with linemen,” Larkey said. “It’s pretty effective. They do a good job of it.”
The Engineers’ trio of starting backs has accounted for almost all of the team’s yardage. Senior fullback Ben Benedict has rushed for 835 yards on 117 carries with 14 touchdowns. Justin Covey, a senior halfback, has gained 769 yards on 83 carries with 12 touchdowns. Sophomore fullback Kenton Roberts has added 375 yards on 57 carries with three touchdowns.
“Our defense is there to stop the run. What we’ve got to do is cut and create a new line of scrimmage,” Larkey said. “It’s a matter of doing that and taking out the lead blockers.
“That will be the key to the game — if we can get physical. I don’t know how physical we are. We play that way sometimes, and sometimes we don’t.”
Their ball-control offense has been so effective that the Engineers have gone several games without punting.
“They are an experienced team that’s been together a long time, and they do things really well,” Larkey said. “They are physical and big up front and have two good, hard-running backs. They are pretty hard to stop.”
Harlan County (5-2) featured a big-play offense in its most impressive win of the season last week against Middlesboro as senior tailback Nathaniel Gilliam rushed for 426 yards and seven touchdowns in the 58-36 victory.
“They probably have four or five guys faster than anybody we’ve got,” Jones said. “I watched Middlesboro give up cutback all night. He sees things well. I think (Gilliam) and (Lance Simmons) see things well. If there is a crease there, they are going to hit it. The big thing for us is that defense is about building a wall. If there’s a crack in it, fill it.
“That’s been the biggest thing I’ve been impressed with us is our defense. Our varsity has only given up five touchdowns all year. That’s probably been the biggest surprise. We’ll have to play at that level. There is no doubt about it.”
The Bears rolled up 630 yards on the ground against Middlesboro and passed only once, but Larkey knows they’ll need more variety this week.
“Those same plays may not work against them,” he said. “Powell County did a good job lining up in the shotgun and just throwing it on them. We’ll have to mix it up and see what works best in the game.”
Harlan County should have the advantage of a tougher schedule. The Engineers’ only loss was by one point (7-6) to Breathitt County. Their wins have come against Pineville (43-8), Bourbon County (43-14), Powell County (58-28), Fleming County (28-13), Berea (52-12) and Phelps (60-0).
Just like they had to put their worst performance of the year, a 47-7 loss to Breathitt County three weeks ago, behind them, the Bears have been warned not to dwell on the Middlesboro game.
“I’ve told the boys that we had to forget about it. We had a good game and everybody is real proud of you, but now is the time to go on and put that one behind you,” Larkey said.
Larkey said senior quarterback Zach Blanton will play without a brace on his left wrist for the first time in several weeks and may be back in the starting lineup, allowing T.J. Green to return to the running back rotation. Junior running back/safety Shequille Clark is doubtful for Friday due to an injury that kept him out of the Middlesboro game.