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MOUNT WASHINGTON - It will be Bullitt East’s sledgehammer offense against Bell County’s stonewall defense on Saturday in the Class 4-A Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl.
Over the past five weeks, the Chargers’ new ‘wishbone’ offense has been almost unstoppable behind the running of seniors Zach McCarthy and Curtis Logsdon.
But, you don’t have to study Bell County very long before you see that the Bobcats have allowed only 57 points in 14 games this season, all victories. Eight times coach Dudley Hilton’s team has held opponents scoreless.
Something will have to give on Saturday.
This will be the first appearance in a state football final since 1994 for Bullitt East. Bell County won the Class AAA State Championship in 1991 when Hilton was also the coach. This is Hilton’s 34th season at Bell County and he is the second winningest coach in Kentucky history with a 319-97 mark.
The defense for the Bobcats is often a 6-2 look but at times Bullitt East head coach Doug Preston saw them move into a 5-3 formation. Because Bullitt East has been running the ball so well the second half of the season, Preston expects to see Bell County use the 6-2 to get as many players near the line of scrimmage as possible for run defense.
“They will have at least eight in the box,” Preston said on Monday. “We’ve been seeing that for most of the season.”
Five Bell County players have over 50 tackles this season led by the 91 of sophomore John Dudley Hilton (No 14, 5-11, 220), the coaches’ son. The team also has 61 tackles from Tyler Harbin (No. 24, 6-2, 230) and 55 tackles by Billy Lawson (No. 67, 6-0, 235).
Bullitt East only threw two passes last week in a 52-47 victory over Calloway County. The Chargers rushed 69 times for 509 yards.
Through the first 12 games of the season, Bell County pretty much had a cake-walk. No opponent was within 21 points of them and eight times the defense recorded shut-outs including a stretch of six straight shut-outs. The last two weeks have been more telling as the Bobcats beat Knox Central 19-14 in the state quarter-finals before knocking off Boyle County 17-15 last week in Pineville. Boyle County turned the ball over six times in that loss and was a two-point conversion away from forcing overtime.
When Bell County has the ball, the player that makes it all go is senior quarterback Shawnta Zachery (No. 2, 6-0, 180). Zachery has thrown 22 touchdowns with only two interceptions. He has completed 78 of his 128 passes for 1,515 yards.
“He can hurt you both ways,” Preston said of the senior running or throwing the ball. “He has a strong arm and likes to go deep, but he can be accurate on short passes also.”
The high profile player for Bell County is senior running back Spencer Greer (No. 15, 5-11, 190). He has 21 touchdowns this season in 13 games. On the ground, he has carried the ball 184 times for 1,348 yards.
The Bobcats have rushed for 3,393 yards this season and four other players have at least 370 yards. Both Matt Simpson (No. 19, 6-0, 205) and Dominic Carton (No. 5, 5-10, 205) have scored six touchdowns on the ground as Carton, a sophomore, has rushed for 517 yards and Simpson, a senior, has 436 yards on 38 carries.
The power back is senior Justin Goodin (No. 32, 5-9, 217) who has scored 11 touchdowns on the ground as he has rushed for 372 yards on 71 carries.
“The stats all point to Greer, but he is a moose,” Preston said of Goodin. “He really makes it all go.”
Preston was also impressed with the play of junior wide receiver Matt Raines (No. 7, 6-1, 180) who only has 13 receptions, but six of those have been for touchdowns. The Bobcats leading receiver is senior tight end Chase Ely (No. 87, 6-3, 155) who has 28 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns.
Up front, Bell County is roughly the same size as the Chargers. The biggest of the linemen is right tackle Jacob King (No. 63, 6-0, 305).
“Style wise, they are like Butler,” Preston said when asked for a reference point to the Bell County offense. “That was a long time ago now. They will try to run a you and then spread you out.”
Bell County does have one of the best kickers in the state, if not the nation, in senior Monte Merrick (No. 11). He came up just short on a 67-yard field goal attempt earlier this season, but has kicked eight field goals and 69 extra points.
Like Bullitt East, Bell County uses a number of players on both offense and defense. Greer does not start on defense, but does play some while Raines is a starting cornerback and Zachery the starting safety.
With a team that has outscored its opponents 629-57 this season, there will obviously be some questions about the quality of their opponents. The Bobcats did play four teams that didn’t win more than two games.
“Some of their opponents are pretty good, but some are not,” Preston said. “It’s hard to know since we don’t play any of those schools, but they have played good teams in the play-offs and still have been pretty strong.”
Bullitt East’s opponents have won 22 more games than the Bell County foes. The Chargers also played five Class 6-A schools while Bell County played just one and that was a Lexington Tates Creek team that had a 2-9 record.
Since the 2000 season, Bell County has posted a 91-22 mark. The Bobcats were 12-1 last season, losing to Lexington Catholic 35-16 in the state quarter-finals. The 2004 team won 13 straight games before falling to Highlands in the semi-finals.
Over the past few weeks, Bullitt East has seldom put the ball in the air. Preston says that part of that has been the weather, but mostly the reason has been that the ground attack has been so successful.
“Why throw it if you don’t have too,” the coach said. “I don’t get too caught up in if we’re throwing or running, as long as it works.
“I didn’t realize last week how many times Zach (McCarthy) carried the ball until after the game,” Preston said of the senior’s 36 carries for 354 yards. “I just wanted to keep moving the ball and winning.”
The only injury in the Calloway County game was a bruised ankle for sophomore Matt Thompson. He was expected to be ready to go this week. In fact, Preston was optimistic that everyone who played against Calloway County would be ready to play on Saturday.
Preston wasn’t sure of all the plans for the week, but he did say on Monday that the team will leave Mount Washington at noon on Saturday. All the fans are encouraged to come out and send the team off to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium at that time.
Tickets for Saturday’s Class 4-A State Championship Game are now available at Bullitt East from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and will be through Friday.
Bullitt East’s preferred seating will be in section 303. Tickets in that section are available for $13 at Bullitt East during the week. On game day, tickets at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium will be $15.
General admission tickets are also being sold for $8 at Bullitt East. At the stadium on Saturday, those tickets will be $10.
At Bullitt East, all tickets are being sold for cash only.