Wildcats, Panthers set to clash for Region 4-4A Title
“Why not us?”
That has been the question all season long for Tullahoma, asked in many tweets and social media posts after the Wildcats were expected by many to finish just short of the playoffs.
That projection makes sense to a certain degree. Two years ago, the Wildcats couldn’t buy a win, ending the 2016 campaign with their 21st-straight loss – a run that dated back to a 2014 playoff loss at Rhea County. In 2017, Tullahoma improved, but finished 5-5 and wasn’t quite able to make the playoffs.
With key players departing from that 2017 team, not many knew what to expect from this year’s Wildcats squad. After a season-opening 31-13 loss at home to Shelbyville on Aug. 16, few people — if any — expected Tullahoma to reel off eight-straight wins, become No. 7 in the Class 4-A State Rankings and be one of the top two teams in Region 4-4A.
Now, with one more regular-season game left on their schedule, the Wildcats will have another challenge on their hands, as they get set to travel to No. 6 Maplewood in a battle for the Region 4-4A Title on Friday.
Undoubtedly, Tullahoma enters that game as the heavy underdog, as the Panthers also boast an 8-1 record, having beat several top-tier schools including Stratford, McGavock and Overton.
It’s certainly not an unfamiliar spot the Wildcats find themselves in this week, after being the underdog in several earlier matchups. THS was projected to lose at Marshall County on Aug. 31 and again at home against Nolensville on Sept. 28. In both games, Tullahoma pulled off wins, edging Marshall County 14-13 and then defeating Nolensville 30-20.
So once again, when Friday comes around, the question that each Wildcat player has heading into Friday’s game becomes, “Why not us?”
So what’s changed about Tullahoma following a week-one loss to Shelbyville? First off, the defense has been swarming opponents. Since being gashed for 471 yards in the loss to the Golden Eagles, Tullahoma has held opponents to an average of 241 yards per contest.
A pair of senior defensive ends lead the Wildcats’ defense, as Ty Cox and Matthew Ross have harassed opponents all season. Cox leads the team in tackles and sacks, wrapping up 61 tackles and getting to opponents’ quarterbacks four times on the year. Ross is second on the team in sacks with three, while wrapping up 30 tackles and a having a fumble recovery on the year.
At the linebacker spot, Samari Layne has also been a key contributor for the Wildcats. Layne is second on the team in tackles, wrapping up 54 on the year, while adding two sacks.
Tullahoma has also been able to create turnovers, forcing opponents to give up possession 20 times on the season. In fact, the Wildcats have a ball-hawking secondary that has intercepted 14 passes on the year.
Jakobe Thomas and Quintin Howard are tied for the lead in picks with three, leading Tullahoma’s secondary. Kaleb Stroop and Kobe Burks each have two interceptions this season, while Race Marin, Sam Brock, Payton Howard and Hunter Jewell each have one on the year.
The Wildcats have also forced six fumbles on the year, led by Burks who has recovered two of those balls. Jewell, Brian Nelms, Hunter Palmer and Ross each have a fumble recovery.
On the offensive side of the ball, Tullahoma comes into Friday night averaging 292 yards per contest, led by its rushing attack, which averages 156 yards per game.
Briasen Corn has been a workhorse for Tullahoma, rushing for 977 yards on 176 carries and 13 touchdowns on the season. Corn is coming off a three-touchdown effort in the Wildcats’ 35-28 win over Giles County.
Ben Fulton helms Tullahoma’s offense, completing 65 percent of his passes on the year as 92 of his 141 attempts have been on target this season. Fulton has thrown for 1,188 yards and 11 touchdowns while being intercepted seven times.
Fulton has used four go-to receivers on the year. Burks leads Tullahoma in receptions, bringing in 22 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns, including a 28-yard score against Giles County.
Palmer has 19 catches on the season for 169 yards and a touchdown. Marin has reeled in 17 passes for 305 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 61-yard reception against Giles County. Ross has 13 receptions for 195 yards and leads Tullahoma with three touchdown catches.
While the stats for the Wildcats look good on paper, Maplewood’s numbers look even better. The Panthers’ offense comes in averaging 376 yards per contest.
Bobo Hodges leads the Maplewood offense as a dual-threat quarterback. Hodges has thrown for 2,148 yards and 31 touchdowns while only being intercepted three times. The senior has completed 68 percent of his passes, while rushing for 352 yards and two scores.
Hodges’ two leading targets have been Kendrell Scurry and Makell Smith, each hauling in 34 passes. Smith leads the team in scoring with 11 touchdowns and 684 receiving yards. Scurry has 640 yards with 10 touchdowns.
Maplewood also has a pair of running backs who have rushed for over 300 yards each. De’Sean Bigham leads the Panthers with 486 rushing yards on 82 carries and three touchdowns. David Southerland has carried the ball 56 times for 350 yards and two touchdowns.
On the defensive end, Maplewood is holding opponents to an average of 12 points per contest. Additionally, the Panthers’ defense has created 20 takeaways on the year, nine interceptions with 11 fumbles.
Cornerback Travares Springer leads Maplewood with four interceptions on the year, while also having two fumble receptions. Ricky Harvell has also brought in two interceptions, while Smith has two fumble recoveries.
On the defensive line, Clint Dowty has been a force, sacking opponents 12 times on the season, adding 57 total tackles on the year. Harlen Zirker leads Maplewood with 71 total tackles with three sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Kickoff for this Friday’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m. For those not able to make the contest, it will be broadcast on 101.5 FM in Tullahoma.
Whoever wins on Friday night is already guaranteed a first-round home playoff game on Nov. 2. The winner of the Region 4-4A Championship Game will host the winner Friday night’s Cumberland County (1-8, 0-3) and DeKalb County (2-7, 0-3) in the first round of the playoffs.
The loser of the Region 4-4A Title Game will welcome the loser of Friday’s Livingston Academy (5-4, 2-1) and Macon County (4-5, 2-1) game on Nov. 2. Both playoff games are scheduled to start at 7 p.m.