The Wayne County Cardinals, 4-3 on the regular season and two weeks removed from a 42-20 win at Barren County, open play in the Class 4A state playoffs this Friday night hosting Knox Central. The Panthers, three weeks removed from their last contest, a 50-20 win at South Laurel enter with a 4-2 mark on the season. The teams were scheduled twice in the regular season, but both dates were cancelled, due to Covid-19 restrictions, as this will be the 20th meeting all time between the two district foes. Wayne County owns a 15-4 series advantage, which includes a 49-34 decision at Jewell Field, on October 18th of last season.
Wayne County owns a nine-game winning streak in the opening round of state playoffs, dating back to a 53-26 loss at Breathitt County in 2010, but this matchup is one of the toughest in recent memory. The teams have near identical RPI ratings the last few weeks of the season and it took the Cardinals last win of the regular season to gain the gain the rights to host the game Friday night.
"Knox Central is both big and strong, add to that they play very physical on both sides of the football. Their size up front is always a concern, so we know we have a great challenge on Friday night. We have to match their physicality period. They have a talented and experienced quarterback, two very good running backs and defensively they are once again really good in the box. They are aggressive and bring pressure, so we know it will take 48-minutes of good football with a lot of intensity," said Cards head coach Shawn Thompson.
Knox Central is under the direction of 4th year head coach Fred Hoskins and this could rival his 2018 regional championship team on terms of talent. Hoskins, 25-18 overall at the helm, has an offense that averages 27.8 points per game and totals 396 yards per game, paced by the one-two running back punch of Seth Huff and Ethan Mills.
Huff, a 6-0 216 lbs. junior, leads the team with 661 rushing yards on 73 carries and a team best 8 TDs, plus is very capable as a receiver with 12 receptions for 153 yards. Mills, a 5-8 190 lbs. senior fireplug, has 73 rushes for 643 yards and 5 TDs, as the Panthers average 244 yards on the ground per contest.
"Their running game is as good as anybody we've faced and add to that they have such a weapon at quarterback in Brady Worley. He's a true dual threat and runs their offense very well. He can keep a defense honest and off balance," said Thompson.
Worley, a 6-1 170 lbs. senior and four-year starter has completed 49 of 83 passes for 915 yards with 9 TDs against just 3 interceptions and has rushed 24 times for 95 yards. Junior Abram Brock is the favorite target of the receiving corps with a team high 20 catches for 504 yards and 7 TDs, while Jake Fisher is a safety valve with 28 receptions for 38 yards.
The Wayne County defense enters the matchup allowing 25.3 points per game and is coming off an uneven performance in the regular season finale at Barren County. The squad pitched a shutout in the first half, helping to build a 28-0 halftime lead, but was gashed in the third quarter and allowed three straight scoring drives. The game two weeks ago has been a big plus this week.
"That game we added at Barren County was huge for us in terms of keeping us focused and somewhat in game shape. We did some really good things but we also had some lapses, so hopefully we build on the positives and continue to work on some other areas. We know anytime we play Knox Central we're playing a solid football team in all phases of the game," said Thompson.
Wayne County enters the matchup averaging 35.7 points per outing with 374 yards of offense led by Mr. Football candidate Braedon Sloan. Sloan is coming off a 20-carry 231-yard effort at Barren County with 5 scores and now has 1415 rushing yards and 25 TDs, in just six games. Brody Weaver anchors the passing game with 57 completions in 106 attempts for 846 yards with 5 TDs, against 4 interceptions, plus is second on the squad with 150 rushing yards and a score, on 46 attempts.
"We have to be solid up front as Knox Central plays so well in the box. It's hard to duplicate their physicality and aggressive style in practice, as they really do a nice job getting pressure with different stunts and twists. We have to match their physicality, or it will be a long night," said Thompson.
The Cards have to keep some balance in the offense and the receiving corps is led by the team high 18 catches and 222 yards of senior wide receiver Carson Simpson. Simpson has 4 total TDs, while sophomore Wesley Cares leads the team in receiving yards with 280 on 13 balls with 2 scores. Lee Shelton, Mason Burchett and Grant Rice all have made big catches down the stretch and will be counted on to supplement the offensive attack.
"It's a must that we start fast and finish strong. We've done some really good things throughout the season but we're still looking for the big effort in all phases of the game to come together on one night. We're excited for the playoffs and very thankful that we get to play. If a player isn't ready this time of the year…….I'm not sure what to say, these games are what we play for," said Thompson.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 pm at Wayne County's Jewell Field. Tickets are limited to just parents of seniors for each team, due to Covid-19 restrictions but the broadcast is available beginning at 6:30 pm on WFLW FM 95.7 and online at wflw957.com.