After defeating South Florence handily last Friday, the Marlboro County High football team has wrapped up the non-region segment of the season undefeated at 4-0. Last season at the same juncture, the Bulldogs were 2 and 3 and struggling.
So what is the biggest difference?
“It has to be the turnover ratio. Turnovers by our defense and our offense protecting the ball has been a key to our success so far this season,” said head coach Dean Boyd. “Creating turnovers is mainly a result of a defense that is causing chaos with an offense, penetrating into their backfield and not letting them operate comfortably. That's what we have been doing.”
Last year, the Bulldogs seldom could pressure quarterbacks and were susceptible to power rushing attacks. So far this year, the defense has six quarterback sacks and 22 stops in their opponents’ backfield. For the entire 2017 season, they registered only six sacks and 50 tackles for loss.
New defensive coordinator Josh Pierce has put a renewed emphasis on creating turnovers and building the enthusiasm within his players in causing fumbles and interceptions.
“Coach Pierce took a page out of the University of Miami playbook and instituted the turnover belt. It resembles a pro wrestling belt and is presented to any Bulldog defender as he gets to the sidelines after getting an interception or recovering a fumble,” said Boyd.
The results include giving up only 11.5 points per game, seven interceptions and six caused fumbles.
Offensively, the Bulldogs have been very successful in protecting the ball. They have suffered only three turnovers, two fumbles and just one interception, which came on a tipped pass.
“A big part of that is maturity, especially in our quarterback. Elijah (Blair) has realized that it isn’t necessary to force a pass into a place where our receiver isn’t wide open. If things aren’t there, he is just taking off and getting what yardage he can,” said Boyd.
Frequently, Blair’s taking off has been the Bulldogs’ best weapon. Against South Florence, two of his scrambles resulted in touchdowns, one on fourth and 28.
“We are undefeated but the level of competition picks up dramatically, now. Continued success will depend on our defense keeping pressure on our opponents while our offense must keep protecting the ball,” said Boyd.
This week's battle with Hartsville will be one of the top contests in the state. The Red Foxes are ranked as the top Class 4A team in the latest statewide media poll. The Bulldogs are rated as the seventh best team.
"This will be a huge game for us. We need a large, vocal crowd to help us. Our fans can play an important role in this game if they will come out and be loud," said Boyd.
In the first three games, the Bulldogs had a lot of success running the football, with sophomore running back D.J. Hicks blasting for 246 yards. However, the Bruins put a halt to that aspect of the Marlboro offense. Other than scrambles by the quarterback, the Bulldogs rushed for only nine total yards against the Bruins.
“Firstly, South Florence is really good in their front six on defense. Then each one of our five offensive linemen had their worst game of the season. That made for a really bad night running the football,” said Boyd.
The Bulldogs will be facing an even bigger challenge when they take on Hartsville this Friday.
“We will need to play much better up front, that is for sure,” he said.
The Bulldogs escaped South Florence with only one injury but it could prove damaging. Leading receiver Tyreek Eaddy suffered an ankle injury early in the fourth quarter. His availability this week has not been determined. Eaddy has 18 receptions for 288 yards and 5 touchdowns. If he can’t go this week, senior Damiyan Cherry will take his place in the starting lineup.
Scouting the Red Foxes
Hartsville is good. Real good. And now with a new wrinkle to their offense, the Red Foxes are even more lethal.
After going undefeated last season before falling in the state championship game, Coach Jeff Calabrese made a simple but effective adjustment to his wing-T offense. Instead of being under center, the Red Fox quarterback now lines up in the shotgun position. That change, plus a personnel move has ramped up the already successful attack.
Tiyon Evans is the new quarterback. Evans was the Foxes primary ball carrier from a wing back position the last two years.
"It turns out that he has a very good arm, so their passing game is better than at anytime since coach Calabrese has been there," said Boyd.
Of course, Evans' legs are still Hartsville's best weapon. Boyd compared him to former MCHS star Syvelle Newton in his abilities.
Collins Bishop returns at fullback. He rushed for over 800 yards as a junior. D.J. Pendergrass is Evans' favorite target.
The Hartsville defense is as good as ever, anchored by star junior end Demonte Capehart. He has already committed to play at Clemson.
Justin Abraham heads up a solid linebacking corps and the secondary is led by safeties Zavaric Hines and Zay Peterson.
Keys to the game
Turnovers may decide this one. If the Bulldogs can protect the ball, while causing the Foxes to cough it up a few times, Marlboro has a realistic shot to pull off the upset. If the Bulldogs are on the wrong side of the turnover statistics, it will be very difficult to take down the state's number one team.
Tee it up
The Bulldogs and Red Foxes will kick off at 7:30 at McAlpine Stadium. The game has been designated as breast cancer awareness night and as teacher appreciation night.