Stage reset for 'Dogs, 'Landers

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR

   Going up against Cloudland's football team is like having an overdue loan at the bank. Either pay some visits to the end zone, or the Highlanders will quickly foreclose.
   "We've got to move the football some," said coach J.C. Campbell, whose Hampton Bulldogs (5-3) visit Orr Field for a much-anticipated game with the Highlanders (7-1) this Friday night. "Nobody else has been able to on them.
   "There's no way we can play defense all night and stop them all night. Everybody talks about defense. You can play defense all night, but if you don't move the ball some and score, you're going to get beat."
   A rematch of a season-opening tilt at Hampton, in which Cloudland pulled away in the second half for a 36-14 win, this contest features two teams that have looked particularly sharp in recent weeks.
   Riding a four-game winning streak, Cloudland was easily on top of its game in a 44-8 victory last week over Powell Valley. Getting superb play from their huge defensive line, led by Brandon Odom and Keith Buchanan, the Highlanders held the Indians to minus-two yards of rushing.
   "I don't think we're as explosive (offensively) as we were a year ago, but I think we're probably a better defensive team," said 'Landers coach Mike Lunsford. "I think I would rather be good on defense than real explosive on offense, because sometimes if you don't get explosive you can't score."
   With Mark Barnett leading the Cloudland linebacking corps, Lunsford has watched his secondary go from being a bit rough around the edges to a well-oiled piece of machinery.
   Mark Byrd, Jonathan Gibbs and Derrick Birchfield are the catalysts of the defensive backfield for Cloudland.
   "We made a shift here or there in the secondary, but I think right now they're playing about as well as any secondary I've ever had," Lunsford said. "The group which went down and played Battle Ground Academy (in 1996 state quarterfinals) would be the only one I'd say may have been better."
   Ranked No. 4 in the Class 1-A state poll, the 'Landers are seeking their seventh consecutive victory against the Bulldogs, but it's not as if Hampton doesn't harbor hopes of an upset.
   The boys in blue have gradually improved, and enter this confrontation as winners of three straight games.
   "We're a better team than we were when we played them before," Campbell acknowledged. "Of course I'm sure they are, too. We feel like there are things we can do now that we couldn't do then. In the first game we weren't sure we could do anything. We've expanded our offense since then, and I'm sure they have, too. They score more points in a game than we do in a year."
   Boasting a good defensive unit of its own, Hampton aims to keep the 'Lander offensive juggernaut -- Cloudland is averaging 43 points per game -- at a reasonable output.
   The 'Dogs are especially tough against the run, with Adam Pierson, Matt Shankel and Jason Humphrey doing a lot of the dirty work inside the trenches.
   Linebackers Jimmy Sarrett and Josh Nave have been solid performers, while hard-hitting Mel Ramey seems to make his way all over the field.
   "They're one of the few schools that can match up with us in size," Lunsford said. "Their quickness can give us some problems on the line there at times. We've got to neutralize their linemen and do a good job on their linebackers. They've got a good defense -- it's hard to score on."
   It's no secret that the Highlander offense revolves around the starting quarterback position, where Byrd has amassed over 900 yards of combined passing and rushing. Overall, he's had a hand in 19 touchdowns (9 passing).
   Running back Dakota Benfield accounts for a sizable chunk of Cloudland productivity, including 500-plus yards of rushing and 13 touchdowns, while Jon Townson and John Hicks galvanize the offensive line.
   Out with an injury during Hampton's first meeting with Cloudland, all-purpose back Michael Peterson brings 811 yards from scrimmage and 11 TDs into the ninth week of the season.
   Jeremy Hall has totaled 478 yards of rushing, and Mitchell Morton 432 through the air.
   With 10 extra points and two field goals to his credit is freshman kicker Cody Walsh.
   "It's a great challenge for our team," said Campbell of Friday's game. "This is what you play for. We're not in any shape to think we're going to win every game or whatever, but it should be good for the communities -- good for the folks to see. Hopefully, we can make it interesting enough for them to enjoy it."
   Kickoff is set for 7:30.