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November 8, 2012
The Eastern Region Division 6 Playoff commence on Friday night with a bunch of quality teams taking the field, none any worse than 8-2 overall. In fact, the bottom half of the bracket (seeds 2, 3, 6 and 7) feature the four teams that made it in the regional semifinals, so there will be two new regional semifinalists in D-6.
Before we start to breakdown this week's quarterfinal matchups, let's review the Eastern Region Prediction Standings with State Football Editor Rod Johnson, VHSL-Reference.com and Matthew Hatfield.
About Ocean Lakes: There hasn't been a better team statistically in the Eastern Region when you crunch the numbers than the Ocean Lakes Dolphins, who are tops in both scoring offense (46.3PPG) and defense (5.7PPG allowed) through ten regular season contests. Ocean Lakes has pitched six shutouts, the most in any season in the Beach District. They boast the top quarterback in the region as well with UVA commit Corwin 'Turtle' Cutler, who has launched 31 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions for 2214 yards. Six of those TD's came last week, five of them to Delaware commit Andre Dessenberg, who tied the district record and has 63 receptions for 872 yards and 18TD's on the campaign. They are very deep and talented at wideout with Mike Alston (6Rec. 118Yds. vs. Kellam last week), sophomore star Jaason Lewis and SeSe Wolters rounding out that group.
What the Dolphins have done this year better than in recent ones is establish balance on offense, mixing in the power running game to go with the pass. Brandon Simmons and Jordan Bobo have together rushed for over 1000 yards, and Mike Dunston moves the chains in short-yardage situations. On the offensive line, it's a cohesive unit with left tackle Alex Skidmore looking like an All-Region candidate. Defensively, tackles Demetri McGill and Derrick Nnadi are enforcers with BCS offers on the table. Tony Baird applies pressure on the outside, linebackers Myke Knox and Jahvoni Simmons will lay the lumber, and corners Treavonne Brandon and T.J. Griffin are alert on the back end.
About Granby: It has been a season to remember for Curt Brown's Granby Comets. The Comets are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 when Bobby Rome and Chris Bell led the way. Their 9-1 mark is their best since the 1966 season, the last time a Norfolk school won a State Championship. Only three times all year has Granby cracked over 300 yards of offense, meaning they've gotten it done by being efficient, keeping mistakes to a minimum and a bone-crunching defense that has given up only 7.3 points and 42.8 rushing yards per game. Junior QB William 'Boojoe' Smith has passed for 910 yards with a 9-5TD/Int. ratio, including 4-0 over the past three games. His two big-play weapons are Lawrence Harris (698 yards rushing, 11 total TD's) and Sidney Fulford (24Rec. 418Yds. 6TD's).
For a team that nearly went undefeated, the offensive line for Granby is somewhat under appreciated in my opinion. Nobody made First Team All-Eastern District with James Haines and Tashad Charity earning Second Team honors. On the d-line, Charity along with junior Sherrod Ryland (6 sacks vs. Lake Taylor) and sophomore end Quinton Brown are an absolute handful. Granby's strength as a team is flying to the football and mounting a pass rushing, something they'll have to do to pull the upset. Smith, Emanuel White, Terrence Horsford and Harris must perform well in the secondary, and they need another All-Star performance from stud linebacker Caleb Wilson, the team's Honey Badger.
Inside the Matchup: To have any success, Granby must be able to win the turnover battle. Additionally, the defensive backs for the Comets have to prevent Ocean Lakes' wide receivers from beating them over the top. They have some bona-fide playmakers there. The Comets have played at a high level defensively in every game, so it's up to their offense to match them or at the very least don't make any deflating mistakes. Getting the ball to Harris and Fulford in space is crucial as well. On the edges, they're quite good.
For Ocean Lakes, it's all about being patient and not diverting from the game-plan that has gotten them to this point. Execute what you're supposed to and make Granby have to play your brand of football instead of letting the Comets dictate what you do. Coach Chris Scott's Dolphins want to set a tone early with its defensive line dominating, using that big-play air attack and then salt things away with the power run game, being physical.
Final Thoughts: Fans of physical football ought to check this one out. Granby was one play away from being undefeated, and the Dolphins have won nine of their ten games by at least two touchdowns with the only team to play them within a score being Salem. Ocean Lakes' offense has been absolutely lethal this year, scoring 40 points or more in eight of their games and three times breaking the 60-point barrier. Granby has eclipsed 40 points only one time and that came in the season opener against Great Bridge, which gave up the second most points in the region during the regular season. To me, the difference will be the Dolphins' depth and ability to strike quickly through the air, similar to what Lake Taylor did against them, only to another level. Granby can keep it close if their special teams play is sharp, stay fundamentally sound and win the Time of Possession battle.
Says: Ocean Lakes 24-6
About Western Branch: After posting a record of 10-20 over the previous three seasons, the Western Branch Bruins were looking for someone to turn things around and get them back in the postseason. In came Greg Gibson from Norview, where he orchestrated a turnaround from 0-10 to 6-4, and he's been just what the doctor ordered. Gibson directs a Bruins team averaging 38.6 points and 309.5 rushing yards per game. Leading the way for his disciplined and methodical offense is UCONN commit Josh Marriner, who has gained 627 yards with 8TD's over the last two games. Marriner earned Southeastern District Offensive Player of the Year honors by rushing for 1898 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Western Branch has really been humming offensively behind Marriner, but they've also got some other backs that figure into the equation with Terrence Ricks, Eugene Summerville and Donte Shepard as well as QB C.J. Thomas, who's pretty mobile, and wideout T.J. Boothe, an unheralded junior that finds the end zone as well. On the offensive line, the Bruins get excellent push, anchored by Chris Hancock and Malcolm Cannady. Defensively, the Bruins have shown the potential to be great, such as when they shutout Lakeland. They've also allowed 30-plus points in three of their last five games. Brandon Addison and DaiQuan Lawrence are two of the DB's they lean on, while Ray Scott, Dominique Prayer, Kenny Holland and Forrest Bailey all get after the QB.
About Bethel: One of the biggest surprises this year has been the Bethel Bruins. Last year they were the #8 seed with arguably better talent as QB Frank Brown along wide receivers Rashawn Proctor and Willie Davis formed the top passing attack in the Eastern Region. They won their opener handily, and then got it handed to them by Lake Taylor 51-0. At that point, some, if not most, anticipated this to be a re-building year for Coach Bubba Hooker and company, probably hovering around .500. Bethel then went and knocked off Hampton and has closed the regular season by winning eight of their last nine, only losing to Phoebus by a whisker in a 19-17 contest. Offensive coordinator Ron Johnson deserves a ton of credit as the Bruins have put up 40 or more five times this year.
Bethel is like Western Branch in that they like to spread the ball around to multiple running backs, but also different in that they don't have a player who will erupt a la Marriner. The trio of Jihad Hudson, fullback Brian Moore and Demetrius Dinkins has combined for 1613 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. Mix in QB Trey Jackson, who'll come through when he needs to running or passing, and Bethel has enough to get by offensively. On defense, they have shown steady improvement behind PD Defensive Player of the Year Ricky Walker, a BCS-level prospect on the d-line. At safety, Nick Clark grabbed two interceptions last week, and Casey Pretlow gives them another takeaway threat.
Inside the Matchup: There's no secret about what these two teams like to do, and that's run the football. Call it vanilla, call it boring, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is they've been successful for the most part. Whoever sprinkles in the passing dimension the best just may win this game. Third down conversions, run or pass, should loom largely. So will special teams, an area that Western Branch has been fine in the kicking department, but a little shaky at times in terms of kick coverage. Bethel's punting game has been rock solid.
On the year, Bethel has been out-gained, so that concerns you quite a bit that if Marriner starts to get rolling, they might have a hard time slowing down that train and answering, especially if playing from behind and needing the passing game and wide receivers to step up significantly. The matchup to keep an eye on might be the Bethel WR's with Corey Sweetenburg and Alex Wilson versus the Western Branch DB's with Addison and Lawrence. Western Branch's run defense is also giving up half the amount of yards that Bethel is allowing.
Final Thoughts: Well, one thing we know is that the Bruins are going to win. Which Bruins though? In my opinion, it's going to be Western Branch for several reasons. For one, nobody has stopped Marriner all year long. Even against Western Branch he was able to rush for 150 yards, and the Tigers simply beat them over the top passing the ball and Bethel doesn't have nearly the weaponry that Oscar Smith does to do that consistently. Furthermore, one-dimensional offenses haven't fared too well against the Bruins; it's usually the teams that can run to set up the pass or vice versa. Bethel's way to win this game is to what Grassfield did, which is win the turnover battle and take Western Branch out of its element early, playing on the Peninsula. But if Marriner gets going, it could be a long night.
Says: Western Branch 38-17
About Salem: Another season, another playoff appearance for Robert Jackson's Salem SunDevils, who sit two victories away from playing in the Eastern Region Division 6 Championship game for the fourth time since 2006. Last year, they ended up a failed two-point conversion attempt away from beating Oscar Smith and claiming the region crown after fighting back from a large deficit. They went into the season as defending Beach District Champs, but lost to an Ocean Lakes team 21-15 in the regular season that they've beaten each of the past two years in the postseason. Engineering their attack is four-year starting quarterback and Virginia Tech commit Bucky Hodges, who has thrown for 17 touchdowns, rushed for 10 more and has 1991 yards passing with only six interceptions.
A team that threw for over 200 yards in six of their first eight contests, the SunDevils have morphed into a run-first team the last few weeks with Daijon Bland coming on for Torron Person and gaining 661 yards over the past four games. Wideouts Kwamane Bowens (33Rec. 732Yds.), James Church and Kyree Burton keep defenses honest, though. Left tackle Zack Purnell anchors an o-line with much more experience than they had this time last year. Defensively, Salem has held every foe to 21 points or less, allowing a meager 136.6 total yards per game. They've yet to give up 300 yards in a game with Va. Tech commit Andrew Motu'apuaka leading the way at linebacker. A couple of other seniors, d-end Rainney Thompson and linebacker Steven Smith, are also part of a group that's relentless coming forward to the football.
About Grassfield: The playoffs are nothing new to Martin Asprey's Grassfield Grizzlies, making their fifth consecutive trip and seeking a third appearance in the regional semifinals. Grassfield started the year out 7-0, and then dropped two in a row to Oscar Smith and King's Fork. Last week they were able to re-group by beating Chesapeake rival Deep Creek 38-0. In that game, wideout Markus Webb hauled in two touchdown passes from QB Blake LaRussa, who has thrown for 1451 yards, 18 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in what can be considered a breakout junior year. Junior running backs Isaiah Harper and Vincent Lowe give the Grizz two breakaway threats in the backfield. Lowe is nursing a high ankle sprain that has him doubtful to play, while Harper enters with 7TD's of over 60 yards this season.
To go with Lowe and Harper, senior wideout Paris Smith has been huge for the Grizzlies in earning All-Southeastern District First Team honors. On the year, Smith has hauled in 33 balls for 721 yards and eight touchdowns. He'll graduate with some school receiving records, successfully following in the footsteps of guys like Tony Patrick and Rudy Rudolph (both now at CNU). Defensively, there were some questions coming into the year with Grassfield graduating hard-hitting linebackers Avery Thompson and Drew Burns as well as d-lineman Austin Johnson and corner Dominique Torres. They've leaned on senior middle 'backer Marcus Mitchell (81 tackles), d-end Demond Dowson and the trio of Smith, Harper and Lowe in the defensive backfield to carry them.
Inside the Matchup: Coach Asprey has a philosophy of 'next man up,' at Grassfield and will need that to come true if Lowe can't play or be close to 100% if he does. His value at corner is as important if not more so than what he brings offensively. Someone, whether it's a guy like Webb, a defensive player say Blake Pitre or Nick Selby, or another RB/DB type such as Josh McNair will have to pick up the slack to defeat a team of the quality of Salem. The SunDevils have made Bland a greater part of their offense and that should continue here in the playoffs with defenses respecting Hodges' abilities and the pass game.
The keys in this one are rather basic. Whoever controls the other team's playmakers the best will have the upper hand. That means Smith, Harper and Lowe (if he plays) for Grassfield with Bowens, Bland and Church for Salen. Also critical is keeping the quarterback in the pocket, whether that means Hodges or LaRussa, an underrated scrambler. Salem has a much more aggressive defense that sometimes gets stronger and nastier as the game progresses, meaning bad news for Grassfield if they get behind by more than a touchdown in the first half.
Final Thoughts: The Grizzlies have to have a lot go right to win this game. That being said, Salem could be on upset alert in this game. Even without a healthy Lowe, Grassfield usually comes out really fired up in these spots and if Salem starts slow, they got a chance to hang around until the final few minutes of the fourth quarter with a chance to win. Given that Salem hasn't played a tough game where they've been challenged in over a month could have them sleep-walking a little bit out of the gate as well. In the end, I feel Salem controls the line of scrimmage and they are deeper with more weapons overall capable of striking in what looks to me to be a 21-20 kind of game going into the fourth quarter.
Says: Salem 35-20
About Oscar Smith: The defending Group AAA Division 6 State Champions begin their playoff journey, trying to win a sixth regional title in seven years and third State Championship since 2008. Oscar Smith has won 70 of its last 71 games against Eastern Region opponents with that one defeat in that stretch coming back in 2010 in the regional title game when the Bayside Marlins, led by UVA DB's Demetrious Nichlson and Anthony Cooper, nipped them 42-40. Just last week, the Tigers survived a scare against King's Fork, rallying from 13 points down in the second half in a 42-35 double-overtime triumph to push their Southeastern District winning streak to 55 games. The Tigers are mighty impressive on both sides of the ball, averaging 42.8PPG while only giving up 11.5PPG.
Senior signal caller Dashawn Blow had a rough time in the team's season-opening loss to Byrnes (SC) on ESPN, but since then has been dynamite, passing for 1895 yards, 29 touchdowns and only five interceptions on the season. At his disposal are two next-level receivers in ODU commit Melvin Vaughn (43Rec. 667Yds. 8TD's) and UVA commit Zack Jones (22Rec. 524Yds. 8TD's), who is nursing an ankle injury. Also bothered by an ankle injury is junior five-star defensive lineman Andrew Brown, part of a ferocious d-line that also features Southeastern District Defensive Player of the Year Darren Flowers, ODU commit Kanyia Anderson and Shedrick Oliver. A couple of underclassmen have stepped up at receiver and in the secondary too with Monty Fenner and Lakwon Chapel.
About Bayside: The Bayside Marlins under the direction of longtime Coach Darnell Moore got off to a rocky start, losing to Salem and Ocean Lakes by a combined 75 points with their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy at 2-2 overall. Since then, Bayside has looked much more like the team we expected them to be going into the season, putting up 42.8PPG during a six-game win streak where they had no margin for error as they clinched a playoff berth for the fourth year in a row. There are national-level recruits and record-setters leading them with QB Deion Stitt, RB Taquan 'Smoke' Mizzell and WR Quin Blanding. Others that have played key roles include senior Will Dillard, a four-year starter at linebacker, wideout Devante Batey and sophomore corner Jamez Brickhouse.
Smoke has rushed for 3629 yards and has scored 74 touchdowns with 64 of them coming on the ground. This year, he has rushed for 1056 yards and 21TD's with 29 total scores. Stitt shined against Oscar Smith two years ago and has a 40-8 record as a starter with a career 81-23TD/Int. ratio, plus his 8418 yards in four years place him 313 yards shy of Vic Hall for third place on the VHSL passing list. Blanding, who is dynamic on both sides of the ball, has 15 career interceptions with five this year to go with 50 receptions for 1034 yards and six touchdowns. While the Bayside defense allows 18PPG, they have held four of their six opponents to six points or less.
Inside the Matchup: If you look at the quarterback matchup and playmakers, you say Bayside has a pretty decent chance to pull off an upset as the #7 seed for the second year in a row. After all, they have Blanding and Mizzell, two five-star talents. Also, let's keep in mind last year they were a #7 seed and beat PD Champ Woodside, the #2 seed who was 10-0 at the time, in OT at Todd Stadium. But Oscar Smith has a decisive advantage in two major areas on the field. They are offensive line and defense. In both of their lopsided losses this year, the Marlins had serious blocking issues, and defensively struggled to get off the field on third down.
For Bayside to have any prayer, they have to keep Stitt upright and give him adequate protection against an Oscar Smith defensive line that is no joke (all four starters made First Team All-SED), plus make the Tigers one-dimensional. On the Oscar Smith side of the ledger, they want to get the crowd amped right away and break Bayside's spirit early, see if they'll quit and dig a hole that's too deep. In addition, maximize McClease's touches as this is a game where it wouldn't surprise me to see him a break a 70 or 80-yarder that is a huge momentum swing.
Final Thoughts: There are several fascinating storylines in this game to follow. You have arguably the two best two-way players in the region in Blanding and Vaughn. Both teams have weapons galore. Also, there's recent history between the two programs. Even though there are only a few holdovers from that 2010 classic, this one is personal for Oscar Smith. Bayside is the last team to beat them in the region, ended their reign as Champs in the area and Morgan wants to make sure he gets a win over Moore before he retires (whether Darnell decides to hang it up after this season or a few years from now). When push comes to shove, I can't envision the Tigers playing two less than inspiring performances in a row. The bye week should help Bayside in terms of their preparation, but Oscar Smith at home is a different animal, especially when they are coming off a close call.
Says: Oscar Smith 41-7
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 Saturdays from 10AM to Noon on ESPN Radio 94.1 plus watch him on the Cox 11 Sports Report.