Hoping to get back on track, 'Horns host SE

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com
After a 9-7 homecoming loss to Daniel Boone last Friday night, Johnson County coach Mike Atwood plans to have his Longhorns ready for action tonight against the Sullivan East Patriots.
Both squads hold a 3-3 overall record, but the Longhorns, boasting two conference wins over East's one, are determined to reclaim their position at the top of the standings.
Many are curious to see whether Johnson County can bounce back from a two-game losing streak to knock the Patriots out of their two-game winning streak.
Mike Atwood, Johnson County's head coach, thinks so.
"We've been working on our offense and running the shotgun," he said.
Atwood doesn't think the losses the Longhorns collected in the last two weeks will affect his team's game.
"That's one thing about this group," he said. "They don't seem to carry over from week to week, win or lose."
The Patriot offense should be a fair match for Johnson County's prized defense. Tending to drive its way down the field, East takes third place in conference rushing yards, collecting 1,016 and 11 touchdowns, with tailback Josh Wright and quarterback Matt Eads behind the wheel.
Likewise, Johnson County's defense is ranked third in the conference, led by Daniel Cranford, Tommy Gregg and Adam Johnson.
"They have a very good defense," said Sullivan East coach Ralph Nelson. "Their defense has been tough against everybody they've played. They keep the other team from scoring a lot of points. That will be our biggest challenge, scoring on them. They want to beat you with keeping it simple."
"Their quarterback likes to run the ball," Coach Atwood said of East's Eads. "We're going to have to keep him and Wright from running it."
Wright, third in the league for rushing, has amassed 505 ground yards and doubles as one of Coach Nelson's kickers. Wright is one for one on PAT attempts so far, and has scored four touchdowns and a two-point conversion for the Patriots.
"Eads has always been a key player for us," said Nelson. "Josh Wright, our tailback, has made some good plays."
Sullivan East has struggled with several injuries this season. Losing six players that were starters or in first and second rotations has made playing more difficult for the Patriots.
Nelson is pleased with two players that have helped fill the holes, Jeremy Banner and Hunter Crowder.
"They've really stepped up," Nelson said. "They've had to rotate more from defense and switching over to wide receiver, too."
Eads will possibly prove to be a troublesome thorn in Mike Atwood's defense. With 266 yards on the ground and 333 in the air, Eads has had a hand in seven touchdowns, three passing and four rushing, and has allowed only three interceptions this season.
In Sullivan East's 13-12 win against Elizabethton last week, after almost 30 years since the last win over the Cyclones, Eads drove the ball 50 yards with minutes left in the game. The dangerous Wright-Eads duo jointly carried it down to the last yard, and Eads forced it into the end zone for a touchdown, with Wright fulfilling his duty by kicking the winning extra point.
Nelson knows he can't rely too heavily on the win going into the game with Johnson County.
"Elizabethton and Mountain City play two different styles," the coach said. "One is running outside around you, and one is running right at you. I'm expecting a tough, physical game from Johnson County."
Michael Nidiffer has also picked up a hefty chunk of yards for the Patriots, gaining 202 yards in 23 carries.
Tony Smith has dodged and sprinted his way down the field this season, single-handedly gaining 359 of Johnson County's 826 rushing yards, and scoring half of their eight ground touchdowns. Smith was responsible for 100 of those yards in last week's contest against Daniel Boone, which included a 55-yard touchdown run.
Though more aggressive in the air than Sullivan East, Johnson County quarterback Jeff Brinker will have to be careful aiming his passes against the Patriots, as the Patriots' quick hands have already grabbed 10 interceptions from their opponents.
Brinker has a 49 percent pass completion rate for 402 yards, compared to Eads' 31 of 80 (39 percent) completions for 333 yards.
Sullivan East's leading receiver is Hunter Crowder, who also punts the ball for the Patriots. Crowder has caught eight passes for 84 yards, and is responsible for catching all three of Eads' touchdown passes. He punts an average of 27.8 yards.
Jeremy Cornett is the Longhorns' most active receiver, catching 14 passes for 198 yards this season, with Nathan Paisley tending to the long passes, with four for 95 yards. In Johnson County's matchup against Happy Valley two weeks ago, Paisley plucked a Todd Caldwell pass from the air for an 80-yard touchdown run.
"They've got good athletes," Coach Nelson said of Johnson County. "I know they're young, but they beat Sullivan Central, who had a good chance at winning the conference. That tells me what kind of tough team they are."
Ian Prudhomme, Johnson County's sole kicker, averages 32.4 yards per punt, and has kicked a successful 10 of eleven extra-point attempts.
"We expect a tough game," Atwood said. "We know we're going to have to play good to expect a win. They're much improved. They beat Elizabethton - that says enough."
Coach Nelson hopes his team is mentally prepared. "The biggest thing is not making mental mistakes like penalties and turnovers. Trying to get better at the little things will be a key to us winning," he said.