For McMinn County, the regular-season finale has come down to a battle for second place in Region 2-6A against its oldest and fiercest rival.
The Cherokees wouldn’t have it any other way.
The region’s runner-up position, and the first-round home playoff game that goes with it, are on the line when the Tribe hits the road to Bradley Central High School for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff Friday at Bear Stadium.
It will be the 97th meeting between the two archrivals, who have played each other at least once every year since 1927. The Bears lead the all-time series 53-40-3, with the rivals having met three times in the playoffs.
“No. 1, it’s Bradley, and it wouldn’t matter if we were 1-8 right now,” said McMinn head coach Bo Cagle. “It would still be the most important game that we play. And I think our kids understand that. And the second thing is we get to play for a home playoff game, which is big-time around here. You just don’t get many of them, and we understand that McMinn just hasn’t had a lot of home playoff games in the history of the playoff system.”
On top of that, it is the Cherokees’ second straight match-up with another team in The Associated Press Class 6A state ranking. McMinn (8-1, 4-1 Region 2-6A) slipped to No. 6 this week, while Bradley (7-2, 4-1) jumped ahead of the Cherokees to No. 4.
Last year, the Tribe had ended a five-game losing streak to the Bears, rallying to win 44-34. And Bradley had lost two key players from last year’s squad sooner than expected, with Power 5 conference prospect Tray Curry no longer on the team and quarterback Javin Burke, a Virginia commit, sustaining a season-ending injury in the Bears’ season opener.
But that hasn’t slowed Bradley offensively. Aiden McClary has stepped in at quarterback in place of Burke and led a Bears offense that has still averaged 35.8 points per game heading into Friday. McClary has passed 90-129 for 1,213 yards and 10 touchdowns against just two interceptions this season.
“He relies on his other players,” Cagle said of McClary. “He puts them in good positions and makes really good reads on the perimeter. And you can tell he’s a good leader out there. He really generals their offense pretty well.”
With McClary at the helm, the Bradley offense has taken on a different look than it had with Burke taking snaps and Curry making plays downfield — a more multifaceted look. Kanon Hall has been an able primary target with 54 catches for 817 yards and seven touchdowns.
“They are pretty good downfield passing, but they’re not Javin Burke throw it 70 yards downfield in the air and have Curry to go up get it,” Cagle said. “That was hard to defend last year. But they’re running the ball more, they’re doing the run-pass option off their runs and doing play action, and they’re still throwing it downfield, too.
“So it’s like they’re doing more than they were with them two there. You have to defend the whole field and be ready for all of it. They are doing well on offense and really a lot different than they have been.”
The Bears’ most dangerous playmaker is Javin Burke’s twin brother, Javon Burke, whom they will line up both in the back field and at receiver. Javon Burke has rushed for 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns on 167 carries and also caught 20 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns at this point in the season.
“If he gets the ball in his hands, he’s dynamic, he’s hard to get down, and he can go,” said Cagle of Javon Burke. “If he gets out into the open field, we’re not going to catch him. So we have to keep him bottled up, know where he is on the field, and make sure he doesn’t get in the open field. Get hands on him and rally to the football.”
Defensively, Cagle expects Bradley to mix up between three-, four- and five-man fronts, and the Cherokees have to be ready for anything else the Bears may bring.
“They move around, and they bring all kinds of exotic blitzes,” Cagle said. “It’s tough to really prepare for everything, so you’ve got to take your best guess for what they’re going to give you, then go into the game and know it’s probably not going to be that and that it’s going to change.
“What they want to do is confuse you, get pressure on you and overwhelm you before you can get the ball in the air, if you’re throwing it, or before you get going running the ball with our running backs.
Ball security could also be a concern if it rains as much as forecast on Wednesday and Thursday, as Bradley’s home field tends to become especially saturated and muddy after significant rainfall. At least three inches is predicted over those two days.
“If we get that, we’re going to be playing in a mudhole, and we’re going to have to take care of the football, be OK with punting sometimes and be OK with grinding away, not getting big plays if that’s the case, getting first downs and holding on to the ball and playing a little keep-away,” Cagle said. “That might be key to getting a win on Friday.”
And finally, a key will be for the Cherokees to match the effort they had against Maryville in last week’s 21-2 loss. McMinn went into the fourth quarter against the defending state champion Rebels down just 14-0.
“I think we played a pretty good game against Maryville last week, we played especially hard, and we’ve got to match that again,” Cagle said. “We’ve got to clean up a few things, and if we do that we’ll be hitting on all cylinders going into the playoffs.”