By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
There isn’t much trickery in old school football, and Union doesn’t try to fool anyone.
Any publicity related to the Bears will tell you as much. Just ask Graham head coach Mike Williams, who read what his information said about the Big Stone Gap-based team.
“I have got it right here, this is what they advertise,” Williams said. “’If you like old school football, you will like watching Union. The Bears will line it up and run it right at the defense.’”
In watching film on Graham’s West Section, Division 2 playoff opponent on Saturday at Mitchell Stadium, Williams said that speaks the truth.
“That is pretty accurate, they line up and do exactly what they say with that,” Williams said. “They are a physical team, they’re old school, they are two-tight, three-back, full-house backfield. They are going to run right at you and play tough defense.”
The sixth-seeded G-Men (7-3) will play No. 11 Union (7-3) in playoff action, with the winner advancing to face either Dan River or Stuarts Draft.
“We are in a good place, we have scored 40 or more points in three of our last four games and contrast that with a year ago when we didn’t score 40 any game,” Williams said. “The defense has been playing well so we are real pleased with where we are at heading into the playoffs.
“I think we are peaking and clicking at the right time.”
Graham snuck into the postseason last season and lost to Grayson County 35-15. The G-Men are comfortably in this year, but the path ahead won’t be easy. Twelve of the 16 teams in the West Section playoffs have at least seven wins.
“We are in a better position than a year ago, last year we were a 15th seed, this year we are up to 6 so that is nice...,” said Williams, whose G-Men will play their third straight home game. “Seeding-wise we in a better position. I think Division 2 West is a lot stronger top to bottom this year than it was last year...This year you have got 13 of the 16 at least where anyone could beat another team.”
Graham (7-3) is in the midst of its best season since winning seven games in 2006. Union is in its second year of existence, having been created by the Wise County consolidation that combined Powell Valley and Appalachia, two schools that won 14 state championships on the gridiron.
The Bears are coached by Travis Turner, whose father, Tom Turner, was the ultra-successful head coach at Appalachia.
“They will be prepared for us, they are well coached, and have got a lot of tradition between the two previous schools,” Williams said. “They will be well prepared and I think they travel well with lots of fans.”
Union has played a difficult schedule, with its only losses being to Richlands, Clintwood and Sullivan North, three schools with one loss apiece. The G-Men have been tested as well, winning once against a Class AAA opponent and three times against AA foes.
“Our kids are well tested, we have had three fourth quarter comeback wins this year, and we have had four victories over higher division opponents,” said Williams, whose G-Men were victimized in a late comeback loss by Fort Chiswell. “The Chiswell loss didn’t go our way and we are not happy about it, but it was just a lesson too that you have to play four full quarters of football and you have got to finish drives if we are going to be victorious against good teams.
“Our kids have been through a lot, I feel comfortable with where they are at heading into the playoffs.”
Union is led on offense by the three-headed monster of Ben Baugh (206 carries, 1,016, 12 touchdowns), Jake McCray (110-1,009, 14 TDs) and Mekyah Davis (108-758, 9 TDs), all of whom Williams thinks have a potent combination of speed and toughness, both of which are attributes of Lonesome Pine District football.
“They execute well, at the end of the day football comes down to blocking and tackling and they do all those things real well,” Williams said. “No matter what scheme you do it will ultimately come down to fundamentals and it will come to who executes their schemes the best and they do a great job of executing, of blocking and tackling and hitting.”
Graham knows they’re coming, now it comes down to stopping them.
“Union does a great job of run, run, run, play-action pass and what they will do is catch you sleeping and you will see passes on the film where they are not even covered,” Williams said. “The key for us to be able to load the box, play physical and have our DBs stay awake for the pass as well.”
Graham has its own talented back in Cody Hatfield, who has run for 1,054 yards and 10 touchdowns, and quarterback Spencer Sheets, who has run for 648 yards and 10 scores and thrown for another 821 yards and six more scores.
Hatfield (12-241, 1 td), Charlie Benfield (18-149, 1 td) and Mark Large (10-157, 1 td) are the top targets, while Colby Hill (4-100, 2 td, 105, 2 td passing) has what Williams calls ‘remarkable hands.’ Four Graham offensive linemen have at least 10 ‘pancake’ blocks this season, led by Chase Asbury with 13 1/2 and 12 1/2 from freshman Canaan Looney.
“We like to use the run game to open up our play-action pass,” said Williams, who said 7-on-7s helped the G-Men discover contributors like Benfield and Hill. “The key to us is to really get the run game established, not too many offenses functions well on 3rd-and-long situations so the key for us is to be able to avoid that.”
Defensively, Hatfield is also the leader with 109 tackles, while Hunter Cook has 106. Michael Thompson has 12 tackles for loss and four sacks, and Benfield has four interceptions.
They’ll have to be ready for a physical brand of football, much like football was played when old-school football was the norm.
“An offense like that, I tell our kids it is unique,” Williams said. “It used to be the norm, everybody had it and then the spread became unique and then the spread has become what everybody has and now the old ways of doing things is unique.
“It makes it tough to prepare for, you don’t see as much of it as you would have 10 or 20 years ago.”
Kickoff on Saturday is slated for 7 p.m.
—Contact Brian Woodson