Clemson senior football players, Tajh Boyd notably, have hauled the Tigers program back into the limelight during their four years in Death Valley. But they haven’t beaten South Carolina, a stain they’ll no doubt be eager to erase when the two schools meet this season.
Nation Ford wide receiver/tight end/linebacker/defensive lineman/punter Riley Hilton can relate. Hilton, who is as ever-present on the field as his many positions suggest, and his senior teammates have hauled the Falcons football program into relevance, from the team’s first winning season, to it’s first playoff game. Hilton was named to the North-South All-Star football game last week, a cherry on top of his excellent prep career.
But, and it’s a bold font, size-72 ‘but,’ the Nation Ford program still hasn’t beaten rival Fort Mill in six tries. Riley and his senior cohorts get a final shot Friday.
“I feel confident our seniors are going to go out and compete,” Nation Ford coach Michael Allen said Wednesday.
The Falcons (6-4, 3-3) may look like the favorites on paper, but Fort Mill (4-6, 2-4) has won its last two games, while Nation Ford has lost three out of four, surrendering 60-plus points in each of the three losses. The added incentive for the host Yellow Jackets is the shimmering possibility of a postseason berth. There are roughly a million computations that would have to be done should Fort Mill beat Nation Ford to determine whether the Yellow Jackets would make the playoffs. All of those would be pointless if they don’t beat their rivals at Bob Jones Stadium.
“There’s so many other games you would have to look at; it’s crazy,” said Fort Mill coach Ed Susi. “We told them all week, ‘if you have any shot at all, it doesn’t matter, if you don’t win.’”
As if the rivalry needed any extra gas on the fire. While a rival isn’t just any opponent, it helps to treat them like one. But that’s tough for Nation Ford with the specter of getting that first win in program history over the Yellow Jackets hounding the team.
“It’s there,” Allen said. “Everybody knows that. But to me, if we’ve got to play on that, then we’ve got some issues. Football games are won by being fundamentally sound and executing. It’s that simple. We leave that in the background and we focus on the fundamentals of the game and try to get prepared to execute.”
How players and coaches process the surrounding hype and smack talk in the two school communities is important.
“You’ve got to take some of it in and it helps you play the game, but avoiding some of the stupid hype I guess you would say, the trash talk going on,” said Hilton. “That just needs to be avoided.”
For Fort Mill, there likely will no avoiding Hilton. He has 67 catches this season for 10 touchdowns.
“Every great quarterback has a great tight end,” said Allen. “Riley has a unique understanding of the game. He understands how to get himself open, and he has a great set of hands. He is money.”
Susi concurred, calling Hilton “a great player.” In a game between two defensively loose teams, Susi said his team’s best defense will be its offense.
“We want to keep them off the field because they do score a bunch of points,” Susi said. “You don’t need to be a coach to figure that one out.”
Lately, Fort Mill has been able to boss the football with its run game. Susi admitted he was, “scared to death” heading into this season with a revamped offensive line consisting of three sophomores and a junior. Replacing five senior starters was a huge challenge, but the Yellow Jacket front has improved steadily. Last week, they paved the way to a 300-plus rushing yard performance in a 35-21 win over Clover.
“Coach Susi’s team has always been a team where the offense is gonna produce,” Allen said. “They move the ball on everybody; they always have.”
Susi and his staff needed the baby blockers to grow up in a hurry, because the Yellow Jackets have playmakers in the backfield. Pint-sized junior Malik Long leads the team with 751 yards and nine touchdowns, while Deryan Sanders and Chandler Kryst are versatile athletes utilized in speed plays or out of the slot to combine for over 1,000 yards of offense thus far. Sophomore quarterback Rogan Wells has also improved incrementally, and leads the team in rushing scores with 12.
“Since our first game, we started off with South Pointe, I think we’ve made improvement in each game,” said Susi. “We call it ‘Murderer’s Row,’ you’ve got to go through those four big ones,” a reference to South Pointe, Northwestern, York and Rock Hill. “Hopefully, we’ve gotten better off of playing them early. We’re starting to find our rhythm a little bit on offense and starting to play better.”
Across town, offensive production has come in an almost opposite manner. The Falcons rushed for over 100 yards in four of the first five games, but haven’t reached that mark since. They have passed for over 300 yards five times this year, presenting an interesting portrait of Allen’s offense. As he said, “You’re gonna try and do what you do best.”
Many factors contribute to the offensive imbalance, including injuries to the offensive line, and the Falcons taking advantage of what opponents allow. Allen said his program has lost around 20 kids for the season, and that seven or eight have been injured or played hurt.
“It’s been one of those years,” he said. “The coaches have done a great job of putting the pieces where they need to go.”
The latest injury to hamper the team came when leading receiver Brandon Cureton injured his knee two weeks ago in practice. He’ll have an MRI on Friday, but is out of the Fort Mill game regardless. It’s that point in the high school football season where leaves have fallen, but also comrades.
“It doesn’t matter who it is, we just need someone to step up and shine,” Hilton said. “I’m ready for it.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T