Polk County has had two weeks to prepare for Owen.
No one needs that long to know No. 5 will carry the football early and often.
The Warhorses may be one of the most transparent offenses in Western North Carolina. But it hasn’t prevented junior Jager Gardner from rushing for an area-best 2,237 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Gardner is only 319 yards away from surpassing Shawn Gibbs’ single-season school record (2,555 yards) from 1992.
However, the bigger picture is this: Owen (8-1, 5-0) can win its first conference championship in seven years at home in tonight’s Western Highlands 1-A/2-A finale for the Warhorses. Kickoff is set for 7:30.
“We wanted to put ourselves in this position, and it’s been far from easy,” Owen coach Kenny Ford said.
“We hoped to be where we are right now and stay healthy. For the most part, we have. The Polk game is one that has been looming since the season began, and I think (Wolverines coach Bruce Ollis) thought the same way about Owen. We’ve had some competitive wars.”
Competitive, but one-sided.
Polk County (6-3, 4-0) has won the last seven meetings in this series and even beat the Warhorses twice in 2011. Five of those seven games have been decided by eight or less points.
The Wolverines and Reece Schlabach (1,420 passing yards, 691 rushing yards and 27 combined touchdowns) started this season 0-3 for the first time in 11 years. They have since won six consecutive games by an average of 29.5 points.
Schlabach’s favorite receivers in his first year as a varsity quarterback have been Anthony Carson (42 receptions for 765 yards and six touchdowns) and Jordan Smith (16 receptions for 344 yards and three touchdowns).
Smith (402 yards, six touchdowns) is also the team’s second-leading rusher.
The Wolverines had an open date last Friday, but a defense led by Debois Miller (63 tackles) and Khiree Green (62) has allowed just 14 points in its last two games.
Polk County would need to follow up a win tonight with another at home on Nov. 8 against Hendersonville to take the WHC title outright. The Wolverines won their last conference championship in 2010.
“We’re certainly excited about it,” Ollis said.
“Our players are playing with a lot of confidence, and we think it’s going to be a pretty good football game. The teams are very similar. One of the keys for us is going to be to try and keep them off balance. Hopefully, we can mix up the run and the pass. We’ve looked at all kind of film, and they run the ball about 78 percent of the time. But you can’t get zoned in on only (Gardner). He’s got a good supporting cast. You don’t go 8-1 on the shoulders of one man.”
Indeed, Rivals.com reported earlier this week that Clemson’s coaching staff is among the college recruiters whose interest has been piqued by Gardner’s big numbers and size (6 feet, 4 inches and 195 pounds). But he has help in the Warhorses’ backfield from fellow juniors Zee Johnston (630 yards, seven touchdowns) and Austin Bennett (374 yards, four touchdowns).
Sam Drummond (902 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions) is only averaging 7.2 pass attempts a game but has completed 75 percent of them.
His primary outlets have been Taylor Frizsell (16 receptions for 168 yards and one touchdown) and Johnston (10 receptions for 147 yards and three touchdowns).
Cade Fox (84 tackles) and Tucker Lowery (67) are the most active defenders for the Owen defense.
The Warhorses cracked The Associated Press 2-A state poll (No. 10) for the first time this week.
“There won’t be a lot of secrets going on (tonight),” Ford said. “Polk County played some tough teams early on, and that was the reason (for the 0-3 start).”
“They got through it, and they’re a lot better team for it. (Schlabach) is everything they’ve always had back there. You think some seasons that they won’t have a quarterback like that, but they always do. It’s going to be tough to stop them.”