Much at stake for 'Betsy, JC

By Tim Chambers
star staff
tchambers@starhq.com

  Trade Days nor the Cranberry Festival can create as much excitement to Longhorn football fans as tonight's game between Johnson County and Elizabethton. This marquee Mountain Lakes Conference matchup could be a deciding factor as to who will represent the conference as the final team in the state 4A playoffs.
  "This is a must win for both teams," stated Cyclone head football coach Eddie Pless. "A loss for us means no chance at making the playoffs."
  Johnson County comes into the game at 2-2, 5-2, but on the heels of a two-game losing streak after reaching No. 10 in the state 4A rankings two weeks ago. Elizabethton got its first conference win last Friday, taking a 23-14 decision over Daniel Boone, which handed Johnson County its first loss, 14-6, the week before.
  To make matters worse, the Longhorns learned that Tony Smith tore his ACL in last week's game against Sullivan East and is lost for season. Smith leads the conference in rushing (962 yards on 123 carries), and has nine touchdowns.
  Versus Sullivan East, the 'Horns led 9-6 lead before Smith went down with his injury.
  "It hurts losing such a good player like Tony," said Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood. "He had worked hard in the weight room over the summer and was on his way to a remarkable season.
  "Not only is Tony a great back, but he's an excellent defensive end. Some of the younger players are going to have to step up and fill some big shoes."
  Jesse Atwood (5-6 156, soph.) gets the nod at tailback.
  "Jesse is our best open-field runner and has some breakaway speed," Atwood said.
  Atwood indicated that Jeff Brinker will get more carries, as will Ernie Hodge and fullback Nathan Paisley.
  "It's more like a backfield by committee," added Atwood. "I feel like all of them can do the job."
  Said Pless: "Their running game is a major concern of ours. You don't know what the weather conditions will be, so that can factor in the game."
  The Longhorns don't throw much, but when they do Mitchell Harper has been the primary target. Jesse Jenkins has completed 21 of 52 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns.
  Atwood is well aware of the Cyclone defense.
  "You look at their defense on film, and the first thing you notice is their quickness," he said. "They are very fast at closing in of the football. When you hold a team like Greeneville to six points, you've got to play some outstanding defense."
  Charles Peters returned from a hip injury in splendid fashion, being named the AP's 4A player of the week after 11 solo tackles, six assists and two pass deflections.
  Derek Nave continues his dominant play at linebacker, and the secondary has been very successful at defending the pass.
  Weston Jeffers (70 of 124, 954 yards) was 12 of 17 for 188 yards in last Friday's game against Daniel Boone. Ryan Kennedy (23 catches, 353 yards) and two touchdowns lead the receiving corps, while Nathan Bishop (15 catches 158 yards) has proven his worth.
  "They have a good quarterback and several receivers that can catch the football," Atwood said. "And at times they have been successful at running the football."
  James Peterson (439 yards on 109 carries) will be counted on to lead the ground attack. Peterson was nursing a sore foot playing against Boone, but appears to be much better for tonight's showdown.
  One weapon that could be a factor in the game is the kicking ability of Brian Freeman. Freeman has some impressive numbers, going 7 of 9 on both PATs and field goals, with his longest three-pointer coming from 47 yards.
  "Brian has been a big asset to our football team," Pless said. "We have a great deal of confidence in him."
  "Our kids know what they've got to do to win this football game. We know that Johnson County will come all out and ready to play."
  Game time is 7:30 at Paul McEwen Stadium.