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October 5, 2012
Two weeks in a row we've seen a big off-the-field story have a significant effect on the High School Football scene in the Eastern Region. Last week, it was the incident at practice involving Phoebus, which led to a suspension and coaching change. This week following a shooting in Norfolk after a football game where a Lake Taylor student was killed, all games in Norfolk will be played on Saturday afternoons instead of under the lights on Friday.
As far as the games on the field, there are plenty of good ones, highlighted by Western Branch visiting Grassfield in a battle between two undefeated Southeastern District squads.
Before we start to assess this week's matchups, let's review the Eastern Region Prediction Standings with State Football Editor Rod Johnson, VHSL-Reference.com and Matthew Hatfield.
#5 Western Branch (5-0) at #6 Grassfield (5-0) . . . We've got some terrific Southeastern District showdowns in October. Later on in the month, these two will tackle Oscar Smith, the league Champ over the past eight years and a two-time state title winner. The victor here has the best shot to challenge the Tigers in the district. Grassfield has won three straight in the series, including a touchdown in the final minute to win 31-26 two years ago. The Grizzlies have been to the playoffs every year since 2008, twice getting to the regional semifinals. Western Branch's last postseason trip came in 2008 when they finished 8-3 overall, bowing out to Bethel in the opening round.
Western Branch is one of the feel good stories in the Eastern Region. New Head Coach Greg Gibson came in from Norview, where he led the Pilots to a 6-4 record following a winless season in 2010. The Bruins haven't just been winning; they've been dominant, outscoring foes on an average of 44-8 and doing so with a powerful running game, often utilizing the triple-option. So far, the team is averaging 300.8 rushing yards per game, needing to only throw on average seven times per contest. On defense, they had given up only 28 yards rushing on 83 carries in their first four games before King's Fork gained 223 yards on them on 37 attempts, many of those coming in garbage time after Western Branch built a big lead. They can be thrown on some, allowing 70.2 pass yards per game.
Martin Asprey's Grizzlies come in averaging 37.6 points per game and giving up only 13.8 points a contest. They have topped the 300-yard barrier three times, but been held under 220 yards twice, including in a wild 22-21 comeback at Nansemond River when their vaunted rushing attack was held to 23 yards on 20 carries. Defensively, this is a unit that had to replace a bunch of seniors, yet they continue to perform well as they've yet to allow 300 total yards in a game. Grassfield's allowing 161.8 yards rushing per contest and 63.8 passing to go with 47.9% completions allowed.
For Western Branch, they have the leader in the clubhouse to win Southeastern District Player of the Year honors in Josh Marriner, who is second in the Eastern Region in rushing yards with 839 to go with 11 touchdowns on the ground. What makes Marriner special is he's putting up 11 yards per carry while also playing a substantial role on defense. There are other weapons for them on the ground with Terrence Ricks, who has three rushes of 40 yards or longer over the last two games, including two of them for touchdowns, Donte Shepard and Eugene Summerville. Quarterback C.J. Thomas has completed 18 of 35 passes for 293 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. His main target through the air is T.J. Boothe.
Grassfield has a couple of really talented backs of their own in juniors Vincent Lowe and Isaiah Harper, two of speediest rushers in the region. Lowe has 30 carries for 169 yards and two touchdowns, plus a touchdown reception and two defensive scores. Harper has 36 attempts for 428 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 11.9 yards per carry. He also scored on a 91-yard kickoff return. What makes Grassfield even more dangerous offensively this year is the emergence of their passing game, going from adequate to where it's now a threat as QB Blake LaRussa has connected on 27 of 55 passes for 626 yards and a 9-4TD/Int. ratio. Receiver Paris Smith is enjoying a breakout year with 12 receptions for 379 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 31.6 yards per reception. Smith too has a kick return for a touchdown.
Defensively, these two teams are somewhat similar in production, though a little different schematically. Western Branch, operating out of a 3-5-3 and 3-3-5 on a good chunk of their snaps, wants to move around guys like Ricks and Marriner to go with DE Dominique Prayer (2 sacks vs. Lakeland) and LB's T.J. Boothe, William Thompson and Ray Scott. At corner, DaiQuan Lawrence has really stepped up for them and will cover other teams' primary receiver. Grassfield relied on its linebacking core last year, and this season their corners in Lowe and Harper are true takeaway threats. Beltran Skinner (3 sacks) and Marcus Mitchell (35 tackles) make things happen at linebacker, even though they aren't as big as Avery Thompson or Drew Burns were last year. Demond Dowson causes havoc off the edge with 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks on the year; he's really underrated for them.
#1 - - Time of Possession: Pound the rock and keep the clock moving.
#2 - - Contain WR Smith: He's Grassfield's main receiving weapon.
#3 - - Kick Coverage: Grizzlies have dangerous, speedy return men.
#1 - - Bottle Up Marriner: Make the Bruins throw and abandon the run.
#2 - - Establish Harper & Lowe Early: Those two are a dynamite tandem.
- - Win Field Position Battle: Gives
the Grizz play-calling flexibility.
One of the matchups I think is going to tell the story here is the Western Branch offensive line against the Grassfield defensive line, which from what I've seen thus far, isn't quite as large or deep as it has been in years past. The Bruins are getting excellent push from Chris Hancock, Thomas Cannady, Chris Myers, Malcolm Cannady and Cody Stuehm. If that continues, they're going to continue to do what they've against their previous opponents because guys like Ricks, Marriner and Shepard give them different dimensions on the ground, whether it's breakaway, yards after contact or just the solid power run for a few yards to milk the clock.
The difference here will be whichever team can be more physical pounding the rock, loosen up the defense with the pass when they need to on third down with play-action, and tackle the other team's star backs at the point of contact to prevent a long run. The Bruins have been more consistent and statistically impressive to this point, but I wouldn't count Grassfield out because they've proven over the years to get gritty wins, and are tough to beat when it's close. Grassfield has thrived on big plays lately, scoring touchdowns measuring 40 yards or longer last week. Lowe, Harper and Smith could make the Bruins pay if they have a letdown on special teams or miss a tackle/assignment on a screen pass.
Says: Oscar Smith 45-3
Few players in the region are as dynamic as Maury junior Davion Taylor, who has scored 11 total touchdowns and recorded five interceptions. He affects the game in all there phases and last week had 4TD's in a rout of Norview, including a pair of pick sixes. Knowing Taylor is Maury's prime playmaker, look for the Titans to double him and concentrate their attention on him so that he doesn't beat them. Up front, they are too aggressive, tenacious and quick for Maury to block effectively I believe, and that'll be the difference right from the start as the Titans have their sights set on an undefeated season and #1 seed in Division 5 for the playoffs.
Says: Lake Taylor 38-14
Says: Ocean Lakes 42-8
Says: Phoebus 41-10
Says: Salem 52-7
Says: Hampton 44-0
Churchland (0-5) at #9 Granby (5-0) . . . For Curt Brown's Granby Comets, they continue to enjoy their best start since 2001 as they get different playmakers to step up every week, such as Lawrence Harris, Sidney Fulford, Caleb Wilson and William Smith on offense, and Tashad Charity, Sherrod Ryland and Evan Stephens among others on defense. The Truckers have lost eight in a row dating back to last year. They've been able to move the ball fairly well at times and even held their own defensively, but turnovers have plagued them quite a bit as seen in their 19-6 loss to Norcom with an interception in the end zone that ended any hope of an upset bid. Churchland will have to do the little things better moving forward to start getting winning results. Granby is probably going to give a much stronger performance as they prepare for a tough stretch coming up with Norcom and Lake Taylor, the other two undefeated teams in the district standings, in the following weeks.
Says: Granby 26-9
Says: Heritage 24-14
Says: Cox 34-13
Says: Woodside 27-21
Says: Bayside 27-14
Says: First Colonial 17-13
Says: Booker T. Washington 27-7
Says: Northeastern 42-21
Says: Great Bridge 30-24
Says: Nansemond River 23-15
Says: Lakeland 28-20
Says: Warwick 35-14
Matthew Hatfield has covered Eastern Region Football & Basketball since 2004 for VirginiaPreps.com, part of the Rivals.com Network. Check out Hatfield's Twitter page for more sports related updates, and you can also read his work in the Suffolk News Herald. To contact Matthew, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and don't forget to listen to him on the VirginiaPreps.com Hour every Saturday at 11AM on ESPN Radio 94.1 plus watch him on the Cox 11 Sports Report.