You could sense, from the outset of Polk County’s 21-7 win over Madison on Friday night, that the Wolverines had arrived at The Little Big House properly motivated and prepared for their Western Highlands Conference opener.
The hitting seemed more intense. Ball carriers seemed tougher to tackle than usual. Emotions on the field seemed stronger than at any point this season.
The Wolverines badly coveted this victory, to both avenge last season’s 28-21 loss at Madison and establish themselves as one of the teams to beat in this season’s conference chase.
Mission accomplished on all fronts.
Polk landed a quick uppercut with Jamal Tanner’s game-opening 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, then slowly wore down Madison both offensively and defensively. The Wolverines’ third straight win and a victory that evened Polk’s record at 3-3 weren’t the most important numbers of the night for Polk head coach Bruce Ollis. Instead, Ollis’ favorite statistic of the night was 1-0 – the Wolverines’ conference record after defeating a Madison team many tabbed as the favorite to win the WHC crown this season.
“I told them after the game, ‘Men, I want to be in the driver’s seat. I don’t want to be a back seat driver,’ ” Ollis said.
“We lost a little bit of our swagger up there last year. We wanted to get it back tonight. I think we got a little bit of it back.”
For that, Polk County could give ample thanks to its defense. The Wolverines struggled at times in the losses to Shelby, Asheville and R-S Central to “get off the field” – one of Ollis’ constant reminders Friday night – often allowing opponents to fashion time-consuming drives for scores. But the Polk defense has been steadily improving, and the Wolverines held a potent Madison offense to 236 total yards. And nowhere did it flash its mettle more than in two key red zone situations, one in each half.
Polk County followed Tanner’s touchdown jolt with a five-play, 54-yard drive, capped by Reece Schlabach’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Carson, for a 14-0 lead with 7:48 still remaining in the first quarter. All the momentum of the game against it, Madison suddenly found a spark as Tyler Hoffman completed a 43-yard halfback option pass to Cole Cuthbertson to move the Patriots to the Polk 8.
Two Hoffman runs got Madison to the 1. On third down, Hoffman was stopped for no gain attempting to plow over the left side. On fourth down, Madison gave the ball to 235-pound fullback Daniel Nash, who slammed into the line and into a scrum of blockers and Polk County defenders. It took officials a few moments to sort through the mass of bodies pushed and piled at the goal line, but eventually they found Nash inches short of the end zone, touchdown denied.
Madison, though, did find the end zone just before halftime as Austin Payne lofted a perfect pass to Cuthbertson breaking free down the Patriot sideline, hitting the senior in stride for a 48-yard touchdown pass wth 1:11 remaining in the half. The extra point made it Polk, 14-7, at the break.
Thus inspired, the Patriots took the opening kickoff of the second half and fashioned one of their best drives of the night, moving to the Polk 4 thanks to a 42-yard Hoffman run. Hoffman appeared headed for an easy score on that play after turning around left end, but Tanner raced from the other side of the field, taking a perfect angle to knock Hoffman out of bounds. That proved vital as Polk pushed Madison backwards on its next three plays, turning first-and-goal at the 4 into fourth-and-goal at the 13. There, Ryan Howell’s 30-yard field goal attempt failed, and Madison had moved inside Polk’s 5-yard line for a second time without any points.
“Our goal line defense is called Rhino, and Rhino was awfully good to us tonight,” Ollis said, noting Zane Capozzi’s play in the special scheme. “We got some huge stops inside the 10. You can’t overstate how big that was.”
Nor can you overstate what happened next. Taking over at its 20 following the missed field goal, Polk kept the ball for the next 9:22 of game action, driving 80 yards in a 16-play, hope-crushing possession. Polk ran the ball on 14 of those 16 plays, converted two third downs, then a fourth-and-7 at the 12 on Schlabach found Carson for 10 yards to the 2. Schlabach then powered into the end zone on the next play to give Polk a 21-7 lead with 10:01 left in the game.
Madison moved into Polk territory with its ensuing drive, but Damian Jackson stripped Cuthbertson of the ball as he scrambled through the center of the Polk defense. The Wolverines recovered at their 29 with 5:11 left and never surrendered possession, finally taking a knee at the Madison 20 as time expired.
There were only four possessions in the second half – two for each team – with Polk controlling the ball for almost 15 of the half’s 24 minutes.
“We ran the ball awfully well,” Ollis said. “Anthony Carson made a huge catch for us on that second touchdown, and he also ran the curl on fourth down (on the 16-play drive) and made the catch at the 2. Both were huge catches for us.”
Schlabach ran for 90 yards on 14 carries to lead a Polk ground game that racked up 216 yards on 40 attempts. Donte Poston had 57 yards and Jordan Smith added 32 yards. Smith, however, was injured during that 16-play drive, and his status for next week will be of key concern for the Wolverines. Schlabach was 7-of-10 for 98 yards passing, with Carson catching four balls for 56 yards.
Hoffman finished with 120 yards to lead Madison, the first time this year that the senior had been held under 150 yards.
“He got his yards, but we were able to control him to a certain degree,” Ollis said.
“This is a big win for us. This is a huge. It puts in a position to control our destiny by winning the first conference game.”