For the third straight season Bell County will host Elizabethtown in a first round playoff game, but this year’s Panthers should present the Bobcats with a stiffer challenge than they’ve had the last two years.
Elizabethtown is 6-4 this season and the number three seed from District 3. The previous two years they were a combined 1-21 and lost to Bell in the playoff 66-0 and 47-0.
“They’ve gone to more of a traditional I formation. They’re coach (Adam Billings) has been there three years, he’s from up north around Wisconsin and comes in running power football,” Bobcat coach Wayne Mills said. “I think our kids see that (they’re not the same Elizabethtown team). They finished third in their district, but they were 5-1 before they played Louisville Central.
“They stumped their toe a little bit against Central and then lost to Henry County in kind of an upset, I thought Elizabethtown was a little better than Henry. They’ve got something to prove this week and it’s their third time coming here so they’re familiar with the place. It’s a tough first round match-up for us.”
The Panther offense is led by sophomore running back Berneil Cecil. Cecil has run for nearly 1400 yards 19 touchdowns on the season. Senior James Washington is the team’s second leading rusher with 28 carries for 199 yards and six scores.
“They’ve got a really nice tailback. He reminds you of Chase Woolum with his size, he runs hard and he’s everything to them,” Mills said. “We’ll work to contain him and our defense will just have to rise to the occasion like they have the last few weeks.”
Bell County is also 6-4 and comes in as the two seed from District 4. The Bobcat should get a boost from the return of junior running back Austin Caldwell. Caldwell, who leads the team with 474 yards and five touchdowns on 75 carries, has sat out the last two games with an injury.
Woolum, a sophomore, has 400 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 85 carries.
“Austin will be back this week and having him and Chase together back there will help us,” Mills said.
Elizabethown has an active defensive front led by senior Brandon Cochran and freshman Isaiah Vea.
“They’ve got a couple of nice defensive linemen that are really quick. They’re not real big defensively but they’re going to try and come with some stunts an that sort of thing to aggravate you,” Mills added. “Hopefully we can line up and run the football on them. A good offense can be a good defense if you can control the clock and keep their running back off the field.”
Bell’s passing game has become a bigger part of the game plan in recent weeks. Sophomore quarterback Peyton Collett has completed 45 of 93 passes on the year for 777 yards and seven touchdowns. His favorite targets are senior receivers Ben Collett (19 catches for 321 yards and two touchdowns) and Justin Warwick (12-216-2) Hayden Gilbert, Woolum and Nathan Collett have also caught touchdown passes.
Mills said the passing game is there if needed.
“Peyton’s got a good arm and we’ve got some good receivers, we’ve said that from day one,” he said. “We’re trying to evolve a little bit into some things with our personnel. If they do bottle us up and stop us we feel like we can do some of those things.”
The Bobcats have come a long way from the start of the season. After early season losses to South Pittsburg, Tenn., and Middlesboro, Bell has dropped just two other games to unbeaten Wayne County and last week’s tight grudge match to Harlan County.
“As a coach you’re never satisfied, but I am proud of this group of kids. They have worked hard and done everything we’ve asked them. They’ve battled injuries, they’ve battled youth and our kids have improved tremendously over the last month and that’s all you can ask,” he said. “We’re playing pretty good football right now and at times we’ve looked really good. Defensively we’re getting better and offensively, I feel like we’ve not hit our stride yet.”
It’s playoff football on Log Mountain and Mills said his team needs to get off to a good start.
“We’ve got to come out early with some toughness and set the tone. We can’t come out and not be ready to play offensively. We’ve got to sustain drives and pick up first downs and make it a quick game. That’s what we want to,” he said. “We want to represent our district well. This could be our last home game and it means a lot to these seniors. We don’t want to stump our toe on Friday night in front of our home fans.”
Friday’s game is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m.