Relying on its one-two running punch of Reggie Battle and Jave Jones, Asheville proved Friday night to be exactly as advertised from the outset.
Polk County, meanwhile, may have begun to find its identity during a second-half rally.
The Cougars, ranked 6th in the state in this week’s NCPreps.com 3A poll, opened a 28-0 first-half lead and went on to post a 49-28 win over Polk County in the home opener at Wolverine Stadium.
Asheville (2-0) took advantage of outstanding field position in the first half, starting five of its six of its drives in the Wolverines’ half of the field and the other on the Cougar 41, in building its halftime advantage. Battle and Jones, who ran for a combined 302 yards and five touchdowns, scored the game’s first three touchdowns before Tevin Salters hit Cameron Ray with a 22-yard scoring strike with 2:03 left in the half for the 28-0 lead.
Salters and Ray teamed again in the third period for a 41-yard touchdown strike, that coming on a fourth-and-nine play, to give Asheville a 35-0 advantage. But Polk County junior Jamal Wheeler returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, a play that seemed to ignite the Wolverines (0-2). Polk County forced a three-and-out on its next defensive series, then fashioned perhaps its best drive of the night, moving from its 16 to the Asheville 1. There, though, a fumbled snap and Cougar recovery prevented the Wolverines from scoring, and Asheville needed just five ensuing plays to cover the 99 yards to the end zone, the final snap a 38-yard Jones touchdown run around left end. That gave Asheville a 42-7 advantage.
Undeterred, Polk County drove back downfield. A Wheeler pass to Jason Chupp, who caught four passes for 100 yards in the game, helped get the Polk drive moving, and Wheeler capped it with a nice 29-yard scoring pass to Chupp in the right corner of the end zone. The Wolverines again forced an Asheville punt, starting the next drive at the Polk 20. Tyler Jackson ripped off 10 yards on the first play, Jordan Smith followed with a 14-yard run and soon Wheeler hit Bryce Martin for 39 yards to move Polk into the red zone. A fumbled pitch pushed Polk back to the 25, but from there Wheeler and Chupp teamed again on a touchdown play, cutting the Cougars’ edge to 42-20.
An Asheville fumble two plays into its next drive gave the Wolverines the ball at the Cougar 13. Wheeler scrambled for five yards before Smith plowed into the end zone from the 8. Wheeler then tossed a 2-point conversion to Smith and, suddenly, Polk County was within two scores, 42-28, with 2:44 left in the game.
The Cougars, though, recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt, and Jones capped the scoring with a 23-yard jaunt with 24 seconds remaining.
“I told the kids at halftime, we were down (28-0), I said let’s go out and win the third quarter, and let’s see what we can make happen in the fourth quarter,” said Polk County head coach Jamie Thompson. “We did that, we came out here in the second half and we battled hard. We got it down within 14 and tried to onside kick. We’re going to fight until the end.
“Asheville’s got a great club. They’ve got a great team. They’re huge up front. Defensively we kind of held our own with them in the first quarter, just 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. Offensively, we just didn’t execute. We shot ourselves in the foot, underthrow a wide-open touchdown pass, drop another crossing pass for a first down. When you’re playing a team like that, you have to execute every time you have the chance to make a play, and we didn’t make those plays in the first half and it kind of got out of hand.”
But the Wolverines did recover in the second half, beginning to establish some offensive consistency and winning battles on both the offensive and defensive lines. Wheeler appeared to establish a solid rapport with Chupp, and Smith and Tyler Jackson began to find running room. Wheeler finished with 192 yards passing on 7-of-12 attempts while Smith ran for 52 yards on nine carries.
“We recovered in the second half,” Thompson said. “It’s not like they threw their second team in there, they still had their (starters) in there. We battled and made it a closer score. We’re not looking for close scores, we’re looking for victories. But I’m proud of the kids’ effort in the second half.”
Held to an unofficial 51 total yards and the one first down in the first half, the Polk offense began to click in the final two quarters, and Thompson expects that to benefit the team as it travels to R-S Central next Friday.
“It helped our psyche,” Thompson said. “It helped us out big-time mentally. I feel like our kids’ confidence is growing and hopefully we can keep that rolling.”