Cover 2: Bluffton, Hilton Head facing key big games

ccox@islandpacket.comSeptember 6, 2013 

Bluffton is home for the first time this season and is hosting an opponent it has grown accustomed to seeing when the weather turns cold and playoff football rolls around.

And while A.C. Flora isn't in town for a postseason clash this time around, the game is just as important given the circumstances for both teams. The Bobcats are hoping to stave off a surprising 1-2 start and the Falcons are looking for their first win of the season.

Hilton Head Island High hasn't yet faced the same pressures of its Bluffton counterparts. Coach B.J. Payne and Co. are coming off the school's first season-opening win since 1999 and are looking for the program's first 2-0 start since 1991 Friday against Ridgeland-Hardeeville.

It's only the third week of the season and the stakes are already high for a pair of Beaufort County schools. Let's take a look at each game a little more in-depth in this week's Cover 2:

A.C. Flora (0-2) at Bluffton (1-1), 7:30 p.m.

The Bobcats needed a game on this year's schedule after Wade Hampton opted to pull out of the series. So coach Ken Cribb gave his old friend Dean Howell a call, a buddy he had begun to build quite a rivalry with over the last several years.

Cribb's team knocked Howell's A.C. Flora bunch out of the playoffs in two of the last three years. The first came in 2010, where Bluffton won a 34-30 shootout to advance to the Class 3-A Lower State semifinals. The second came in 2011, where a 44-35 triumph lifted the Bobcats to their first and only Class 3-A state championship game.

"Every week it got more exciting, the more the kids believed and the harder we fought," said Cribb, remembering that 2010 victory. "That year we were in a battle all year long. It was a learning process, everybody getting used to each other."

The learning process remains. The Bobcats spent much of the early part of this week going over film, hoping to correct the mistakes that led to a 23-20 loss last week at South Effingham. It was Cribb's first defeat in 18 tries as Bobcats coach in the months of August and September and marked Bluffton's lowest scoring output since a 21-7 win over Myrtle Beach in the 2011 playoffs.

"We've been working real hard," Cribb said. "We did a lot wrong. We weren't carrying our assignments and we weren't taking care of the little stuff. We just had a lot of cleaning up to do. It was a good lesson. They saw it on film, they know it."

The task at hand doesn't get any easier this week. Howell left for White Knoll but the same pesky Falcons remain under new coach Reggie Shaw, despite the team's 0-2 start. A.C. Flora dropped a 14-8 decision to White Knoll in the season opener and watched a week later as a game-winning field goal led to a deflating 43-41 loss.

"They could easily be 2-0 and looking like they're right where they've been," Cribb said.

Bluffton once again will seek to win without a full lineup. Defensive end Shameik Blackshear returns from a bum shoulder and will attempt to play through the pain, as it is not yet 100 percent healthy (though Cribb said the injury cannot get any worse if he plays). His line mate K.J. Ford, however, won't see action this week due to a broken finger suffered in the South Effingham loss. He had pins inserted into the finger during a Thursday surgery and is expected back soon.

Running back B.J. Hill remains out with a high ankle sprain.

"That's the biggest test, to see how much we improve from where we are," Cribb said. "When you take two of your top kids off the field, especially when it's two of your playmakers, you've going to take a significant drop."

Prediction: It's hard to know what to expect out of this relatively young Bluffton team that currently finds itself dealing with a handful of key injuries. But I can't envision Cribb dropping his home opener, so look for a thrilling 23-21 win for the Bobcats to get back over .500.

Hilton Head High (1-0) at Ridgeland-Hardeeville (1-0), 7:30 p.m.

I was a little bit conservative with last week's prediction, guessing that Hilton Head High would need a little bit more drama to notch its first season-opening victory since 1999.

So much for that. The Seahawks squashed my 24-20 prediction by building a 45-0 halftime lead before cruising to a 52-16 victory over Whale Branch Early College High School. So what do the Seahawks have in store for Ridgeland-Hardeeville as they look for their first 2-0 start since 1991?

"Obviously they're off to a good start this year," coach B.J. Payne said of the Jaguars, who grabbed a 20-14 victory over Savannah Country Day to open the season two weeks ago. "They've implemented new things, especially a new offense. ... I know from implementing new thing shere, you get better every week."

The Jaguars are moving to the spread offense this year, so the natural assumption is Seahawks corners Jon Baty and Jestin Morrow will be the focus this week. But Payne is honed in on his front four, led by Louisville commitment Poona Ford, to guide Hilton Head High to a 2-0 start. They will need to get plenty of pressure while also slowing down running back Marquis Griffin to keep Hilton Head High in good shape.

"Establish the line of scrimmage," Payne said. "If we can only bring four, that enables us to do a lot more with the seven behind them."

Offensively, Payne is still looking for his team to pick up the fast-paced tempo it continues to shoot for. The Seahawks were plenty fast enough for me as I tried to keep up with the stat sheet, but Payne still isn't satisfied.

"We still weren't as fast last week as we want to be," he said.

Prediction: The Seahawks will be fast enough for Ridgleland-Hardeeville, which may take some time to get settled in after an odd Week 1 bye. Look for Hilton Head High to continue its early season success with a 44-16 win over the Jaguars.

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