A powerful offense has been a major reason for Independence’s 14-0 record and run through the 5A state playoffs with relative ease.
The Eagles, however, will face a potent offense in Friday’s BlueCross Bowl.
Senior standout quarterback and Vanderbilt commitment Deuce Wallace will lead Sevier County (12-2) in hopes of thwarting Independence’s unbeaten season and attempt at a first state championship when the teams square off at 7 p.m. at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium in Cookeville.
Despite an average margin of victory of 31 points this season, the Eagles are staying grounded heading into their second trip to the state championship game, and first since 2007, where they fell to Smyrna 46-20.
“We try not to be overconfident,” senior standout quarterback Andrew Bunch said. “But we’re definitely confident in our ability and we’re confident in what we’re doing because of what we’ve put into work.”
Bunch, who has passed for more than 3,000 yards despite missing more than four games with an injury, said a shot at making school history has provided extra motivation for the Eagles.
“The first state title for our school would be an exciting thing to be a part of when we leave Independence,” he said. “To have that piece of history, being the first team to win a state championship, that’s helping us stay focused.”
“All the way through it’s been one game at a time knowing there’s a lot of checkpoints along the way and that we could be doing something for the first time in school history,” added third-year Eagles’ coach Scott Blade, who won a state title in 2008 with Hillsboro.
For an Independence team that has never won more than 11 games, a state title would be the cherry on top of what has already been the winningest season for the school, which opened in 2004.
“This year has been a special year in a lot of ways,” Blade said. “Starting a year ago today (Monday), we started our offseason workouts and the previous year didn’t go quite like we wanted.”
Battle of the arms
To obtain the goal they reinforced in their heads through their offseason workouts, the Eagles will have to win a matchup of high-caliber quarterbacks.
While most Midstate football fans are well aware of Bunch’s talents, Sevier County will bring its own golden arm in Wallace.
“We’ve got a couple of heavy hitters at quarterback going head-to-head,” Blade said.
Both quarterbacks have put up impressive numbers this year and have rolled through the playoffs.
Bunch completed 22 of 32 passes last week with five touchdowns and one interception, picking up 51 more yards on the ground, while Wallace threw six touchdowns in the Smoky Bears’ 42-28 win over Rhea County in the semifinals. Bunch has passed for more than 1,150 yards and 11 TDs in the playoffs while Wallace has passed for 776 yards and 14 TDs during that stretch (3,246 yards and 35 TDs total this season).
“He’s a Division I quarterback,” Blade said. “It’s going to be hard to get him contained or rattle him.”
Both playcallers benefit from similar styles of play.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Blade said. “They both like to throw it around a lot and both of them do it extremely well. This will probably be, from an offensive standpoint, two really high-powered offenses going head-to-head.”
Wallace, who wears No. 2, said he prefers to stay in the pocket more than Bunch, but both possess play-making ability.
“Their offense has a couple more quarterback runs than what we do, but we’re very similar when it comes to throwing the ball,” Wallace said. “We can both extend plays with our feet and be pretty accurate on the run and in the pocket.”
He added that he thinks they may need to score a lot of points to counteract the Eagles’ high-powered offense.
“They’ve got a very explosive offense,” Wallace said. “A lot of great receivers and a lot of great athletes that he can get the ball to, and he does a really good job with that.”
A special bond
Bunch has had great success getting the ball to several of his receivers this year, but wideout and fellow senior Nate Johnson has been his undisputed go-to man.
Bunch went down with an elbow injury in Week 2 and missed 4-1/2 games, but in 10 games together this season the two have connected 64 times for 1,149 yards and 20 touchdowns, including all five of Bunch’s TD passes in last week’s 56-15 rout of Centennial.
“That’s just us,” said Johnson. “We come in and we work hard. We run our route tree a lot, and I guess you could say we connect through that. We do well in that and it just translates out onto the game field.”
Bunch said the duo owes their chemistry to the work they put in over the summer, and Blade believes the two have found success in an offensive system that exploits favorable matchups.
“Our offense is not really a system of a scheme, we’re more looking for matchups,” Blade said. “Every facet of the offense is, ‘Where’s our matchup advantage?’ And in doing that, there’s a lot of matchups that work in our favor when Nate’s out there and we like to go to him. They’ve done a great job of understanding that, creating those advantages and working through it.”
And the success the two have had together this year helped Johnson be selected as the runner-up for the 5A Mr. Football Back of the Year.
“He’s earned it,” Bunch said. “He’s worked at it and he’s really become an unbelievable athlete and huge playmaker for us. Having him on the team is just a blessing.”
Reach Sam Brown at 615-259-8232 and on Twitter @SamBrownTN.
Matchup: 5A title game vs. Sevier County (12-2), 7 p.m. Friday
Top players: Andrew Bunch (Sr. QB), Nate Johnson (Sr. WR/ATH), Daniel Wright (Sr. RB/LB)
Points scored: 592 (42.3)
Points allowed: 157 (11.2)
Playoff results: Def. Cane Ridge 49-1, Hendersonville 38-7, Hillsboro 28-20, Centennial 56-15