By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
If Graham wants to claim its first playoff win since 2009, the G-Men will have to do it at Richlands, a team they last defeated two years before that, snapping the Blues’ then 33-game regular season win streak.
That is fine with Graham third-year head coach Mike Williams.
“We are always excited to have another week to play football,” Williams said. “Who we play don’t make any difference to me, going into this thing we were willing to play anybody, anywhere, anytime.
“At this stage of the game they are all challenging games. It is a little ironic that us and Richlands in their first year in this (division) that we would match up in the first round.”
Believe it. No. 12 seeded Graham (6-4) will visit No. 5 Richlands (7-3) tonight at Ernie Hicks Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. The winner will draw either Gretna or Virginia High in a Group 2A West second round affair next weekend.
Throw out the seedings in this one.
“Both teams are playing real good football,” Williams said. “Looking at the playoffs I would say for the most part any one team is capable of beating another. Seedings matter as far as where you play, but as far as the games themselves, they don’t mean a whole lot.
“At this stage in the game I think anybody is capable of beating anybody. We are playing good football right now, Richlands is playing good football, it is kind of old hat for them. We feel good about where we are at.”
No wonder. Graham nearly got past the Blue Tornado earlier this season, falling 27-26 at Richlands in September.
“If we win this week we are going to play somebody different,” said Williams, of facing the Blue Tornado once again. “It doesn’t make any difference to us, we are happy to be in the playoffs and happy for a chance at another game.
“We embrace the opportunity to play Richlands again. I don’t have any qualms with a rematch in the first round.”
It was just three weeks ago when the G-Men were 3-4 and on the brink of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009. That was followed by three straight wins, including at previously unbeaten Fort Chiswell.
“I think we are playing good football right now, it is nice to go into the playoffs with momentum, with wind in your sails, I feel like we are doing that,” Williams said. “I think both us and Richlands are coming into this thing with a little momentum behind us.”
While Graham has won three straight, the Blue Tornado grew from a 3-3 start to win four in a row. These clubs met on Sept. 13, with Richlands scoring a late touchdown to survive in a game that saw the G-Men turn the ball over twice and miss a couple of two-point conversions.
Williams sees no reason why this one won’t be just as close.
“Anytime you have a close game within a score or so, you can always look back and see a play here or there you could have won with,” Williams said. “Most all close games come down to 1, 2 or 3 key plays and that was probably the case for us against Richlands.
“The first game came down to that and usually when you play a top-notch opponent, it is going to come down to a couple of plays. I feel like this is a good matchup, we match up well with Richlands.”
Offensively, Graham brings a balanced offense that could have two 1,000-yard rushers by the end of the game. Dylan Cook (1,074 yards, 9 td) has already reached that mark, and Charlie Benfield (941, 11 td) is just 59 yards away.
Colby Hill will return to quarterback after recuperating from a shoulder injury, having thrown for 1,028 yards and 11 touchdowns, three of which came against the Blues. His targets include Bryce Farris (18-362, 6 td) and Dequan Booker (24-347, 2 td), with it all starting behind a veteran offensive line paced by center Chase Asbury and tackle Daelan Caffee.
“Since I have been they have been one of the better defenses we have faced,” said Williams, of the Blues, who are led on defense by Anthony Cordle, Frank Taylor and Ben Brown. “The key on offense always lies with the guys up front.
“If they come off the ball, block hard and block to the whistle that is going to create running lanes and time to throw the ball. The key to any offense is the offensive line performing at a high level.”
Defensively, Hunter Cook paces Graham with 117 tackles, while Asbury has 91. Adrian Gray is uncanny for getting into the backfield, having recorded 6 1/2 sacks and 22 1/2 tackles for loss. Adam Carbaugh and Jake Tibbs, who have been out with injuries, are also expected back on a limited basis. Dylan Cook and Mark Large have played admirably in their place.
Their task will be to slow down the Richlands offensive attack that is led by Colton Staten, a senior tailback with 1,113 yards in just seven games this season, including 174 in the earlier game with the G-Men.
“I think the key to beating Richlands is to stop Colton Staten and make them beat you some other way,” Williams said. “He is one of the best backs in the area, if you don’t wrap him up good he will beat you.
“He is running behind a really good offensive line so the key is to tackle the guy. If you don’t wrap the guy up you will find yourself bouncing off him and him running for another 20.”
Both teams also have talented kickers, including Samuel Stowers at Graham and Ben Brown, who kicks, punts, plays wide receiver and defensive back and is also a back-up quarterback for the Blues.
“Samuel is in his third year kicking for us, he does a great job,” said Williams, of Stowers, who is 7-of-11 on field goals and has 20 touchdowns on kickoffs this season. “He is pretty accurate on his field goals and the bonus this year is he has been able to put the kickoffs in the end zone.
“Ben Brown does the same thing for Richlands. He got great distances on his field goals, he puts the kickoffs out of the end zone and he is a really good punter too...He does a whole lot for them, he is a good football player.”
Williams is still searching for his first playoff win at Graham, but it hasn’t been for lack of effort. In 2011, the G-Men, which lost to Grayson County during the regular season by 38, closed the gap to 20 against the Blue Devils in the postseason, and the G-Men dropped a hard-fought eight-point decision last year to Union.
“Win, lose or draw you want to be proud of your performance, you want to feel like you have done your best...,” Williams said. “Even though we haven’t had the win there in either scenario I am proud of the performance of both cases.
“At the end of tomorrow night, win, lose or draw, I am going to be proud of our kids’ performance.”
—Contact Brian Woodson