The Wayne County Cardinals open the 2020 season this Friday night at Jewell Field, hosting Class 5A foe Southwestern. The matchup marks just the fourth meeting all time between the two programs as the Cards own a 2-1 series edge, after last season's 44-6 win at Southwestern. Wayne County is coming off a 10-2 season that produced a district championship, while the Warriors bounced back from a slow start to finish 7-6 and claim a district title as well, winning at Whitley County 21-15. This is the season opener for both squads and neither have had a scrimmage of any kind, so the unknown is much different this time around.
"This off season has been like nothing we've ever thought we'd ever have to deal with the delays and the Covid-19, so we had to know the opening game would be a challenge too. We know nothing about Southwestern, other than what they like to do from year's past. They will have great size on both sides of the line, really good running backs and just good speed all around. They really finished the season strong and will just be more comfortable being in the second season with Coach Foley, so we know it will be a big challenge Friday night," said Cards 17th year head coach Shawn Thompson.
The Cards return most of their offensive line last season and the bulk of the offense figures to come from the senior tandem of running back Braedon Sloan and quarterback Brody Weaver. Sloan, an All-State selection last season, comes off a remarkable junior season that produced 2804 rushing yards on 277 carries with 20 catches for 461 yards and totaled a state record 56 touchdowns. Weaver added one of the most efficient seasons ever, completing 102 of 177 passes for 1822 yards with 20 TDs, against just 3 interceptions, plus added 70 rushing attempts for 235 yards with 2 scores, as the offense averaged 45 points per game in 2019.
"We're not going to change much, or be very fancy on offense, as long as it's working. Braedon just has unbelievable vision and couple that with all his other talents he's tough to tackle. Brody is starting his third season at quarterback and looking at the numbers from last season and how well he took care of the football, we've had some great quarterbacks but nobody was as efficient as Brody. Those guys are going to the attention, or publicity but we have some good experience coming back on the offensive line. Four of those guys started last year and two of those started as sophomores, so even though they won't get much of the glory, it starts with our offensive line," said Thompson.
The unit will face a Southwestern defense that could base out of a 44-look and allowed just under 22 points per game in 2019.
"We are going into this blind and will have to prepare for everything, so we have to be ready to adjust on the fly. Coach Foley has been a 44-defense guy but having said that nothing will really shock us. This week our focus also has to be on making sure we do everything we're supposed to on our end. We have to take care of the things we can control and make sure despite limited practice we want to do all the little things right," said Thompson.
Southwestern averaged 17.9 points per game last season and those numbers should improve with the return of senior quarterback Chandler Crabtree, as the stalwart missed almost the entire season. Crabtree will have a trio of running backs that can produce numbers led by the 679 rushing yards and 8 TDs of junior running back Tanner Wright. Wright has excellent size at 220 lbs. and is joined in the rotation by senior Conner Crisp and junior Giddeon Brainard. Crisp totaled 3 rushing TDs and 111 yards on 20 attempts last season, while Brainard totaled 204 yards and 37 carries with a score.
"Wright is a big strong kid, so we have to be able to tackle him. They have several different guys as well that can run the ball, so we have to win some battles on the line of scrimmage and be good tacklers that swarm the football as a unit," said Thompson.
Wayne County allowed 28.4 points per game in 2019 and with several new faces in the rotation junior linebacker Lee Shelton will be tasked with leading the charge of the defense. Shelton, at 6-4 220 lbs. and 24 starts under his belt leads all returnees with 90 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss and 3 interceptions.
"We moved Lee to the middle linebacker spot and hopefully he can have a huge season, as he has all the intangibles. We have good size up front but we also have a lot of new faces in the backfield, so we have to develop a pass rush. Last season that was disappointing, we must get to the quarterback and get off the field on third downs," said Thompson.
Special teams play will be key as will minimizing penalties but Thompson has other concerns as well.
"Hopefully nobody gets hurt, as that's a big concern with the fact conditioning is much different than playing under game circumstances. We're excited to play, I'm sure they're excited to play as well, we'll go out and give our best and see what happens," said Thompson.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 pm Friday night at Jewell Field and due to Covid-19 restrictions attendance will be limited and no tickets will be sold at the gate.
The Southwestern-Wayne County game will broadcast on FM 95.7 WFLW with 6: 30 p.m. re-game, and 7:30 p.m. game time.