'Landers pummel Sullivan East

Photo by Dave Boyd
Cloudland's Bill Johnson is wedged between a host of players, including teammates Jonah Horney (37), Jonathan Webb (61) and Brian Simmons, and HamptonÕs Brandon Barnett (18) .

By Wes Holtsclaw
The Sullivan East Patriots were optimistic about their chances going into Friday night's game against the Cloudland Highlanders.
But after a 210-yard rushing performance from Dakota Benfield and a few rounds of chase the quarterback, you can't blame the Patriots if they left Roan Mountain a little "Byrd-Brained."
Leaving the first half with a tight 30-14 lead, the 'Landers broke loose in the second half with two big scores from quarterback Mark Byrd and a 61-yard scamper from Benfield to pull away with a lopsided 52-21 victory over the 4-A unit on Orr Field.
"We played very well," said Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford. "I think Sullivan East is a quality football team. That's one heck of a quarterback they have (Matt Eads) -- he can throw as good as anybody you'll see. They had several kids that could catch the ball and had good linemen. They do a great job and are a good football team all around."
The Patriots (0-1) took advantage of penalties and turnovers to keep the game close after some long runs and key passes from Eads. However, they went head-to-head with a different Cloudland (2-0) defense in the second stanza.
Said Sullivan East head coach Ralph Nelson: "We wanted to mix it up and after we got down to the wire, we knew we could throw it. But it just got to the point where they were sending a lot of guys and covering us tight. We got in a situation where we had to throw it, and that wasn't what we wanted to do."
The 'Landers pulled away with five sacks (from Dane Christman, Jeff Lunsford, Aaron Stocton and Jon Pritchard) in the second half and a big turnover to open the third quarter. It paved the way for an 18-yard Byrd score.
"We wanted to go out there and prove a point in the second half," said Jeff Lunsford.
"The defensive ends were tough in the second half," Coach Lunsford said. "I thought Jeff really played well and Aaron came in and gave us a good pass rush, which kept them contained and kept the quarterback in the pocket. Possum (Pritchard) and Dane played really well and stopped the run a lot better in the second half.
Three of those sacks in East's first second-half possession led to another Cloudland spot after some set-up runs from Benfield and a 12-yard pass from Byrd to Stocton.
The quarterback broke a 22-yarder down the sidelines for paydirt, and there was no looking back.
The 'Landers subbed reserves throughout the majority of the second half, but put Benfield back in for an early drive in the fourth quarter, where he broke the 61-yarder to put an exclamation point on the game.
"I wasn't really satisfied with my performance last week," said Benfield. "It seemed like our linemen were hit and miss, but they did a good job. This week they did a superior job. You couldn't ask for better blocking. Everybody knew what to do and they got it done."
Michael Nidiffer added a long 62-yard touchdown for the Patriots with 41 seconds left to tighten the score at 52-21.
Added Byrd: "We made some decisions at halftime to change up on the offensive and defensive line. We came out and the coaches did done real well with it and it showed."
Benfield had 217 total offensive yards on the night, while Byrd picked up 130 on the ground with 53 through the air. Nidiffer led East with 80 yards on the ground, while Eads tallied over 100 total offensive yards with 86 through the air.
"We didn't execute at all," Eads added after the game. "We didn't block that great, our defense didn't do that great and they ran all over us. We threw decent, but still we didn't have a great game at all."
"Cloudland's tough, especially when you've got to open up with them," he said. "They are a hard team to go against."
The 'Landers scored on their first three drives of the game, with some key pass completions setting up a two-yard Benfield plow to take the initial lead.
Benfield used runs of 12 and 19, with a 24-yard Byrd dodger to lean across the goal line with a one-yarder, putting the blue and gold up 16-0.
Sullivan East rallied back with a big personal foul penalty on a short kickoff to get inside Cloudland territory. Eads and Nidiffer paved the way for Josh Wright, who scored from eight out to close the game within a score.
Jonah Horney had some quality gains for the home team in their next drive before Byrd turned a three-yard loss into a 10-yard touchdown.
Eads connected for four passes in East's first drive of the second quarter and even got into the end zone. But an illegal forward pass gave Cloudland's defense a chance to shut the Pats down.
The Bluff City squad only needed one play to regain possession, as Mark Byrd touched Aaron Stocton with a 14-yard pass. However, Stocton was hit hard from behind, coughing the ball back over.
Two penalties set up a soft 36-yard scoring strike from Eads to Wes Spurgeon, turning it into a closer fight.
But Byrd rallied the troops again, and sprung free with a long 58-yard gamebreaker that was called back. He made up for it with three big gains while Benfield tallied a 29-yarder to set up a three-yard trip to take the lead into the second half.
There were many complaints from both sides throughout the course of the game. Several Sullivan East coaches made remarks in the press box throughout the first half, while Cloudland linemen were ill afterwards.
"We did pretty good. I wish they wouldn't have held as much, and we would've done a little better," added 'Lander lineman Jake Gibbs. "But I think we wore them down late in the game."
"It was a very tight game," Benfield said. "We turned the ball over and had a lot of penalties called back on us. But our defense was the ones that brought us through. They played awesome tonight. If we play like we did tonight, we'll be alright."
Dane Christman led Cloudland with 12 tackles while Byrd and Stocton contributed eight apiece. Three others totaled seven for the 'Landers.
Despite the opening loss, Coach Nelson still sees some good signs for his talented East squad. They will still be very competitive in conference play, but they were outshone Friday night.
"This is a great team and I still believe we've got as good a team as anybody," he added. "We've got a lot of work to do. We faced a great team that will probably go a long ways in the playoffs and they'll end up doing this to a lot of guys."
The Patriots will work on dishing out some punishment against Unicoi County at home this Friday.
"We're mainly worried about conference," Eads declared. "Yeah, you want to win them all, but conference matters the most, so that's what we're looking forward to."
Cloudland faces the first of three Virginia squads on their schedule when Rye Cove (0-1) travels to Roan Mountain on Friday night.