On a rainy Friday night at The Little Big House, one thing still shone clear amid the drizzle and gloom, especially to those on the Madison side of the field.
The Polk County squad that romped past the Patriots on Friday night is a much different – and better – beast than what the Patriots saw in September.
The Wolverines completed a season sweep of Western Highlands Conference foe Madison and did so in impressive fashion, rolling to a 45-13 win in the opening round of the state 2A playoffs.
Its winning streak now at nine games, Polk County (9-3) will next travel to Reidsville for a second-round matchup with the storied Rams program, owners of 18 state championships. The Rams, 10-2, defeated Hendersonville 50-20 in their first-round matchup on Friday.
As they did in September’s 21-7 win over Madison, the Wolverines took an early lead Friday night on a Jamal Tanner touchdown. As they did in September, the Wolverines stopped a Madison drive inside the 10 without allowing any points. And as they did in September, the Wolverines largely stopped Madison’s offense, the Patriots scoring two late touchdowns with the outcome long decided.
But what Polk County did Friday that it didn’t do in September was dominate offensively and score points. The Wolverines raced to a 39-0 halftime lead, scoring on every first-half possession and twice in the final 30 seconds of the half. Polk had a 92-yard drive for a touchdown, it had two one-play possessions for scores, it had outstanding line play opening holes for three backs (Tanner, Reece Schlabach and Jordan Smith) who each finished with more than 100 yards rushing for the second straight game.
“This was a team victory,” said head coach Bruce Ollis as Polk County won its playoff opener for the fifth straight year. “We did so many things well in the first half.”
And even went things went wrong for Polk County, they went right. Up 33-0 with 27 seconds left in the first half, Polk County lined up for a kickoff, with Tanner attempting a squib kick. But the kick struck a Madison defender and rebounded directly back to the Wolverines, who recovered at the Madison 46. Schlabach then floated a perfect pass down the right sideline to Tanner, who grabbed the toss, pulled away from a defender and scored. That sent Polk County into the half up 33-0.
Then, in the game’s final minutes, pinned deep in its territory, Polk lined up for its only punt of the night. Assistant head coach Jamie Thompson suggested a play long part of the Wolverine playbook but one Ollis said had never been used – two punters. Schlabach, the team’s regular punter, lined up as he normally does. Backup punter Jordan Smith stood in the end zone some 10 yards behind in case of a bad snap. The snap was perfect, but Madison broke through to block the punt. It sailed directly to Smith, who rolled out of the end zone and up the Polk sideline for some 60 yards before being tackled at the Madison 38.
“I told Jamie that was the best use of two punters I’d ever seen,” Ollis said. “It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it worked out well.”
As did everything in the first half.
Polk County took the opening kickoff and immediately took control. Tanner had runs of 16 and 29 yards on the game’s first two plays, then followed a Smith 14-yard run with a 5-yard scamper around the right side for a score and a 6-0 Polk County lead less than two minutes into the game.
Madison drove to the Polk 40 on its possession before being forced to punt. Schlabach fielded the kick inside the 10 and was nearly brought down by Madison standout Cole Cuthbertson. But Schlabach slipped away, then perfectly set up a crunching Tanner block and weaved his way upfield to the Madison 45. The Wolverines covered those 45 yards to the end zone in five plays, the final one a Schlabach 9-yard option run around left end.
Then came perhaps the defining segment of the game. Madison took the ensuing kickoff and, using the running of senior Tyler Hoffman, drove to the Polk 8. Two running plays netted nothing, and a third-down incompletion left the Patriots with fourth-and-goal at the 8. With the rain pelting down, Madison again attempted to pass, but Tyler Rogers’ pass sailed incomplete in the end zone and, just as they did twice in September, the Wolverine defense had stopped a Madison red-zone drive without any points.
Five plays later, there were points on the board. Schlabach carried for 4, 12 and 16 yards, with Tanner then taking a toss sweep around left end for 11 more to get Polk to the Madison 49. There, Smith hammered into a pile of Madison defenders, then broke free and outraced them all to the end zone. Dylan Weicker added the extra point for a 20-0 lead.
The sequence of events, effectively, settled the outcome.
“That really took the wind out of their sails,” Ollis said. “Once we made that stop, and then took it 92 yards and scored, that was tough for them to overcome. We took advantage of almost every mistake they made.”
One of those mistakes came on Madison’s next possession, as J.C. Suddeth recovered a Hoffman fumble on the Patriots’ second play at the Madison 40. Polk called a toss sweep for Tanner, who zipped around right end, made one cut and sprinted to the end zone. The Patriots punted on their next possession, and Polk drove 65 yards to score with 27 seconds left on a Schlabach 1-yard plunge. Then came the crazy kickoff, the pass to Tanner and the huge halftime margin.
A Tyrone Miller interception early in the third quarter gave Polk the ball at the Madison 45. Schlabach called his own number and split the Madison defense for a 45-yard touchdown run, giving the Wolverines a 45-0 lead. It might well have been the senior’s final touchdown at The Little Big House – Polk County will need an upset or two elsewhere in the bracket to get another home game – and it came on a night when the Wolverines added a few new offensive looks for future opponents to think about.
“We had a couple of new wrinkles that worked well,” Ollis said. “I’m pleased with how well we ran the ball inside. We didn’t have to do as much option as we usually do because our power game worked so well.”
And now it’s on to the second round and Reidville for a team soaring with confidence.
“Everybody is two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier,” Ollis said. “I’m very pleased with the effort. We had a great week of practice and it showed.
“It looks like we’re heading to Reidsville. I like our chances.”
Photo: Jane Ollis