Got pickle juice? Trojans plan to run Gaffney into the ground

bmccormick@heraldonline.comAugust 22, 2013 

  • Northwestern-Gaffney dossier

    7:30 p.m. at District 3 Stadium; watch live on ESPN3.com

    •  Question that will be answered: How will Gaffney’s 10 new starters on defense and new starting quarterback handle the pressure of playing Northwestern in Rock Hill?

    •  Overlooked: Northwestern’s special teams; the Trojans boast a triple threat in the return game with Jaquavious Mackey, Dupree Hart and Corey Sargeant, and averaged 40 yards per kickoff return during last season’s 49-19 win over Gaffney. Mackey’s third quarter, 90-yard kickoff return for a TD is included in that figure. Trojans QB Mason Rudolph is also an excellent punter, which he proved during last year’s Gaffney win by pinning four punts inside the Indians’ 20-yard line.

    •  Exclamation point: Northwestern has beaten Gaffney nine straight times in Rock Hill, dating back to Nov. 23, 1991, when the Indians, coached by Joe Montgomery, knocked off Jimmy Wallace’s Trojans 14-6 in the state playoffs. There won’t be a player on the field Friday night who was born when that happened.

    Visit Heraldonline.com for a video interview with Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson, and high school football podcasts from Gene Knight and Bret McCormick. Search “football podcasts.”

It happened during the second quarter, the cries from the coordinators’ box for pickle juice.

Northwestern’s offensive pace during its 49-19 season-opening beating of Gaffney last season was so relentless in the early exchanges on a muggy night that Indian defensive players were plopping to the turf with cramps left and right. A frustrating sight for the huge crowd gathered at The Reservation, the “crampidemic” helped the Trojans to a healthy early lead in what was eventually a lopsided win.

“Whether it’s the first game or Week 15 and the state championship, our whole M.O. is playing fast, and trying to dictate our own speed and making the defense try to catch up with us,” Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson said ahead of his team’s Week Zero meeting Friday night with the Indians. “It wasn’t just a game plan for Gaffney; it’s been a game plan now for 10 years that I’ve been in this offense.”

Pickle juice, which according to a study published in the American College of Sports Medicine relieves cramps 45 percent faster than water, seemed to be Gaffney’s only solution. But conditioning wasn’t the Indians’ issue in coach Dan Jones’ opinion.

He pinned the problem on not being able to get first downs.

“It wasn’t necessarily the pace, we’d go out for two or three plays then punt the ball,” said Jones. “Our defense never really got off the field and we couldn’t establish nothin’ on offense.”

A look at drive charts from the game show that neither team produced a drive longer than 2 minutes, 25 seconds in the first quarter. Both offenses were on and off the field quickly, the main difference being that the Trojans started three of their possessions in Gaffney territory, scoring twice for a 14-0 lead.

Final time of possession favored Gaffney, which went on to run 90 plays to Northwestern’s 68. Perhaps the Trojans and trainer Laura Wilson just had more jars of Mt. Olive queued up.

“I think of it as a snowball rolling downhill,” senior offensive lineman Raydon McCloud said. “The faster you play, the more it affects the game.”

Both coaches agreed that tempo and pace would be an issue this year. The Indians graduated 35 seniors from last season’s Big 16 state championship team, including 10 defensive starters. That’s right, Gaffney enters Friday night’s matchup against Northwestern’s experienced, high octane offense with one returning defensive starter.

Richardson’s team returns Mason Rudolph, an Oklahoma State commitment, under center, and he has a number of targets to choose from, including senior Mustafia Love and junior Dupree Hart, who combined for over 180 catches last fall. Hart had 10 grabs for 109 yards and a touchdown and Love eight catches for 107 yards and a score in the Trojans’ 2012 win over Gaffney, but Rudolph is the one that ties all of Northwestern’s disparate talent together.

“He knows the offense real well, he’s got a good surrounding cast,” said Jones. “He makes the plays, makes the calls, gets the ball where it’s supposed to be and on time. Execution – that’s what offense is supposed to be and that’s what he does and that’s why he’s got a Division I scholarship waiting on him.”

The experience and brains of Rudolph and the other Trojans returning players have enabled Richardson’s team to push the pedal even harder.

“We can do some things a little faster just because they’re thinking faster. That comes with being in the system for a while.”

The experience is derived from Northwestern practices, well-oiled clinics on planning and focus executed at a snappy rate. That in turn gets the players in shape, especially the hosses down in the trenches.

“You go slow in practice, you’re gonna go slow in the game,” said McCloud in his resonant baritone. “It’s tough on the big guys, but it’s gonna benefit us in the long run.”

The desire to push the speed of a game also dictates Northwestern’s religious hydration efforts. Plenty of Powerade during the week means less of a need for pickle juice on Friday nights.

“We preach it all the time and we provide it for our kids,” said Richardson. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how great a coach you are and the X’s and O’s and scheme and all of that if you’re boys aren’t out there to execute it. We’ve got to keep them on the field.”

The Indians, winners of 16 state championships, are never to be underestimated, though, a reminder that was served intermittently during Northwestern’s Wednesday afternoon practice when the Gaffney fight song, a shiver-inducing reminder of big gains and touchdowns past, blared over the loudspeaker every couple of songs.

“Gaffney’s Gaffney,” Richardson said after practice. “That looks good on paper when you say they’re replacing 10 out of 11 starters, but the guys they’ve got walking the halls, they’re easily able to go out and be as athletic as the guys were in the past and to do what they need to do to keep Gaffney winning.”

Northwestern has dominated the series when playing at home. The Indians’ last win over the Trojans in Rock Hill came Nov. 23, 1991, when Joe Montgomery’s club upset Jimmy Wallace’s undefeated squad in the state playoffs. Nine times since, Gaffney has made the dark trek back down S.C. Highway 5 without a victory.

The pregame odds may be tilted against Gaffney, but Jones can’t wait to get the season going regardless of what school is first on the schedule.

“I’ve been partying for weeks now,” he said, chuckling. “If I had my druthers, I’d rather be playing Aynor or somebody, but I don’t get that choice.”

After so many heavy contributors marched across the stage to graduation in May, Jones said he may have as many as five guys playing on both sides of the ball. Better get the pickle juice ready.

Davidson’s role a question mark

After an indifferent start to the 2012 season, Gaffney won nine straight games after switching talented receiver Shaq Davidson to quarterback. But the South Carolina commitment, ranked by many as one of the top prospects in the state, will not be under center Friday at District 3 Stadium against Northwestern.

Davidson had surgery on his thumb over the summer and hasn’t fully recovered. Jones said the Indians star will definitely not play quarterback, if he plays at all.

“He’s not had any reps at any other position,” Jones said, “but he’s still good enough we could throw him out there and he’ll play free safety and he’d still be able to make some plays. But he’s not gonna be much of a factor.”

Obviously, that hurts the Indians.

“How successful would Northwestern be if their starting quarterback went down?” Jones asked with a laugh. “It’s a struggle to overcome; he’s the most valuable player on our team.”

Richardson said that Davidson wasn’t in any of the film that the Trojan coaching staff got in film exchanges with Gaffney, but that he was still preparing to see him on the field.

“He’s gonna be there Friday night in some capacity,” he said. “Our players know he’s gonna be there and we’ve prepared for him, No. 11, No. 1. It doesn’t matter; it’s Gaffney, they’ve got players regardless of what the number or name on the jersey is.”

Indians senior Eddie Studyvance has been working at quarterback for less than a month, after playing linebacker and receiver the last two seasons.

“Considering he’s been playing there for three weeks, he’s pretty good,” Jones said. “Against a team like Northwestern, though, he’s not gone up against that yet. It’ll be a big factor.”

Gaffney will need a big night out of senior running back Hyleck Foster, a Marshall University commitment who rushed for over 1,800 yards last season as a junior.

“We’re as good as he goes right now, so he’s got to have a good game for us,” said Jones. “Maybe keep it out of Northwestern’s offense’s hands.”

Bret McCormick •  329-4032 Twitter: @BretJust1T

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