In one of his first smart coaching moves of the week, Clover’s Chad Smith sent two-way standout Willy Clark to talk to a reporter after Wednesday’s practice.
Clark is averaging 10.5 yards per carry with six touchdowns and also has three sacks while playing linebacker, but he’s not loquacious by any means. Smith confirmed Clark’s selection was tactical; he didn’t want any billboard material for the York Cougars to chew on.
Clover heads into the 104th rivalry clash with York in a buoyant mood.
The Blue Eagles are 4-0 and enter Friday’s game at York fairly viewed as a slight favorite. That’s a huge change from the last four years when Clover won five total games and entered each meeting with the Cougars as a firm underdog.
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I don’t know how used to being the hunted we are. We’re used to coming in as the underdog, and that’s not necessarily the case this time.
Clover’s Chad Smith
“I think we’ve got a little more confidence going in, but at the same time I think they’re a quality football team still,” Smith said. “Their record isn’t what it needs to be but they had so much trouble right at the start of the season that they’ve actually done a good job of squashing stuff.”
The Cougars lost their first three games of the season, but grabbed a first win last week following a month of tumult. The 49-39 victory at Fort Mill seems to have cleared some of the storm clouds.
“We’ve just been behind the eight ball an awful lot these first three or four games,” said York coach Bobby Carroll. “For the first time we’ve got everyone healthy, nobody having to sit out for behavior or anything, but we’ve got to start executing. Minor details, man, and play with a little more competitive spirit than we have in the past.
“But I can’t blame these kids for effort. They’re playing as hard as they can play.”
Against Fort Mill, York didn’t turn the ball over for the first time this season and racked up well over 500 yards of total offense. Sophomore Ethan Mitchell justified the decision to start him at quarterback with 21-of-27 passing, two touchdown throws and a collected performance.
Senior receiver Shandon Cobb filled in at quarterback the first two games but was glad to move back to the comfort of receiver. He’s had 14 catches and a touchdown in the last two games and helped the Cougars stretch the field on offense.
“I was kind of happy,” Cobb said about returning to receiver. “I was trying to help the team out any way I can. I just want to make plays, you know?”
Ditto for Jae’vion Matthews, the Cougars’ star defensive back/receiver/return man. He had eight catches for 211 yards and two scores against the Yellow Jackets, including a 93-yard screen pass for a score. Coaches from East Carolina and Virginia Tech were watching on the Bob Jones Stadium sidelines at various points and they would have seen a much more dynamic-looking Cougar offensive attack.
“I wish they hadn’t made the change at quarterback,” Smith said, laughing. “The Mitchell kid is a good quarterback and when you have Matthews and Cobb on the outside, they’re dangerous.”
The Blue Eagles are dangerous too. A jump in explosive plays - those that gain 20 or more yards - has been central to the unbeaten start. Clover shifted its scheme slightly in the offseason, moving from a double-wing to a wing-t, which has opened up more passing options, and coaches also moved Clark to fullback. Instead of having the usual ton of bricks-type fullback, Clark brings burst up the middle that surprises would-be tacklers.
Smith said that the slight change also leaves room for more misdirection, the double handoff-type plays that leave defensive linemen spinning and linebackers chasing the wrong gaps.
“It’s a rivalry game and anything can happen,” said Carroll. “We’re preparing for the unexpected, trick plays, and this wing offense that they run, we just don’t see it often.”
Carroll was right that anything can happen. The 2013 game, in which York barely held off one-win Clover 13-10, is the best example in recent history.
“It was a close game, not because of coaching or anything like that, but because it’s Clover-York,” Smith said. “That game, every stinking year, you can throw records, you can throw everything out the window. Who can handle the atmosphere and the emotion the best is the team that’s gonna win.”
Streaky rivalry in the last 10 years
Clover won five straight games against York from 2006 to 2010, but it’s been the Cougars’ rivalry the last five meetings.
2015: York won 35-3
2014: York won 31-21
2013: York won 13-10
2012: York won 54-0
2011: York won 15-0