Charles Fant was an assistant coach for nine years at Boyd-Buchanan when the Bucs played in three consecutive Class A state championship games, winning it all in 2003 with a 31-24 victory over Donelson Christian Academy.
He’s seen more than a few good football teams in his day.
Fant, now in his first year as Notre Dame’s coach, has seen one really good team – Giles County – on film four times this week and came away with one clear conclusion.
“Giles County is very similar to that DCA team that beat us in the (2004) championship game,” Fant said Wednesday prior to the Irish’s workout at UTC’s Scrappy Moore Field on the banks of the Tennessee River. “They’re so balanced and that’s how DCA was.”
Notre Dame (9-2) will travel to Pulaski to play undefeated and top-ranked (by murphyfair.com) Giles County (11-0) in a Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Class 4A second-round playoff game with a berth in the quarterfinals on the line.
“Giles is the best team we’ve watched on film,” said Fant, whose Irish dropped Hixson, 31-6 in the first round. “The quarterback (Al Cobb) makes that offense go. He has a cannon, but runs the ball as well as he throws it. With that combination he’s a tremendous player and we’re excited to play somebody like that.”
The high-powered Bobcats have mauled 11 straight foes and their lowest point production was 35 in a shutout win against Lincoln County to open the season.
Heading into Friday’s game, Giles County is averaging 44.4 points and its defense is yielding a meager 6.7 points, the best in the state regardless of classification.
“The way they seem to win games, without question, is with their offense,” Fant said. “When you watch their defense, people really move the ball on them. So, why are they blowing people out? They get after that football, they try to strip it and create a lot of fumbles.
“We traded four films with them and the amount of turnovers I saw was stunning.”
Great offense. Great defense. It’s a lethal combination.
“Absolutely,” Fant said. “They’re number one for a reason. And they’ve been good for a long time. They played well last year and it took a team like Greenville to play with those guys. And they’ve gotten better this year.”
Greenville posted a 42-21 semifinal victory over Giles County in 2011 and then hammered Maplewood, 37-0, in the championship game.
“They’ve got to be good to be 11-0,” said Notre Dame wide receiver/cornerback Kareem Orr, a 5-foot-11-inch, 174-pound sophomore said. “We’re going to be challenged, put to the test, but we don’t want to go home. We’re going to give it our best shot.”
After losing to Signal Mountain, 27-20, on Oct. 28, the Irish have reeled off four straight wins, including last week’s 31-6 rout of Hixson in the first round of the playoffs.
Notre Dame’s offense has been running smoothly and the Irish have averaged 43.7 points in the late-season winning streak. The defense has given up 41 points, 12.9 per game, in those four victories.
“We’ve been playing some amazing defense,” Orr said. “We’re right where we’re supposed to be. We held Hixson to six points and I thought that was very good.”
McMinn Central is the only team that piled up points against the Irish, scoring 41 in a 21-point win on Aug. 24. Since then, Grundy County’s 22-point production is the most allowed, but the Irish won that game by 40 points.
“These last few games have been the best we’ve played all year,” Fant said.
Kealey Green leads Notre Dame with 86 tackles, including 52 solos and 10 for loss. Tyler Enos has 70 stops and Taylor Bankston 68.
Sophomore Joe Dossett, a two-way lineman, has 37 tackles with 20 for loss. Offensively, Dossett has been credited with 40-plus “pancake” blocks and he made 20 tackles for loss to lead the team in that category.
Will DeBarge recorded 23.5 tackles, four for loss and a team-high six sacks.
Benefitting from the strong play up front – offensive linemen Grayson Hargett, Dossett, Robert Kidwell and John Quatrano – are running backs Ricky Ballard, Auston Banks and, of late, Orr.
“Playing Giles County is a big challenge for us, one I think we’re ready for,” said Hargett, a 5-foot-10-inch, 190-pound senior. “They key for us is ball control. We have some talented backs and a pretty stout O-line. If we can keep the ball for long periods of time and produce some points and keep our defense off the field as much as possible, we’ll be all right.”
Fant warns that other teams have moved the ball on Giles County, but finishing drives with touchdowns has been a difficult task, for sure.
The Irish’s ground game is handled primarily by freshman Ricky Ballard and sophomore Auston Banks, both of whom have missed games this season due to injuries.
Banks was the starting back when the season opened, but Ballard assumed the lead role when Banks was hurt.
On the final play of the game at Lookout Valley, a game the Irish won, 23-13, Ballard suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him some down the stretch. Before the injury, Ballard rushed for 215 yards and three touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets.
For the season, Ballard leads the Irish with 770 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns in eight games. Banks added 591 yards and eight scores, also in eight games. Orr did well when Ballard and Banks were sidelined, gaining 300 yards and scoring eight touchdowns.
“Our offense the running game is where it needs to be,” Orr said. “I think our passing game has got to pick it up.”
Quarterback Alex Darras has thrown for 1,209 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions, helping the Irish field a solidly balanced offense. For the season, Notre Dame has rushed for 2,401 yards – that’s clearly the heart of the offense – and passed for 1,246.
“We have to get the run game going,” Hargett said. “If we do that, it opens up a whole different game for us.”
The Irish cannot allow the Bobcats to get off to their usual quick start. Marshall County couldn’t prevent that from happening and trailed, 34-0, at halftime.
“Every time, in all four tapes we have, it was over in the first quarter,” Fant said. “With an offense like Giles has, you can’t give the ball to them (turnovers) every time you touch it.
“We’ve made the decision to go up there and play the type football we’ve played all year, win lose or draw. Our goal is to be better when we leave Giles County on Friday night.”
Area Second-Round Pairings
All games start at 7 p.m. Local Time
South Pittsburgh (8-3) at Gordonsville (10-1)
Boyd-Buchanan (10-1) at Oneida (9-1)
Silverdale (10-1) at Knoxville Grace (9-1)
Trousdale County (8-3) at Marion County (8-2)
Notre Dame (9-2) at Giles County (10-0)
Page (7-4) at East Hamilton (10-1)
Ooltewah (8-3) at Lenoir City (9-2)
Riverdale (8-3) at McMinn County (10-1)
Baylor (8-3) at Memphis University School (8-2)
McCallie (5-5) at Ensworth (10-0)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)