Four years ago, Lake View High School football coach Daryl King described what his team was about to face in the Class A Division II state championship game.
“I told the boys the other night, ‘You’re not going to see the wishbone, the I-formation, what we’ve seen the past three weeks.’ This is a new ballgame for them,” King said. “We’ve got to get in a totally different mindset going into this game.”
Lake View quarterback Chris Ford had thrown a total of 90 passes coming into the game.
Christ Church quarterback Hunter Townes, working out of the spread, threw for 214 yards and two touchdowns in the final, and the Cavaliers won the first of their four consecutive state titles, 35-14.
On Saturday, for the fifth year in a row, Greenville County will send a Class A spread team to a state final to play an opponent that prefers to run.
This time, it’s Southside Christian School (12-1) representing the Upper State, and the Sabres will take on Allendale-Fairfax (12-1) at noon Saturday at Charles W. Johnson Stadium on the campus of Benedict College in Columbia.
Junior quarterback Clayton Coulter, who directs Southside Christian’s spread attack, has thrown for 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. His chief target has been senior wide receiver Connor Holden, who has 57 catches for 1,135 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Sabres also have senior running back Quintyn Reeder, who has rushed for 1,837 yards and 24 touchdowns and averaged 20.1 yards on his 18 receptions.
“You don’t see a whole lot of teams that are as balanced as we are,” SCS senior linebacker Josh Tolbert said. “We have an outstanding quarterback, an outstanding group of receivers, an outstanding running back and an outstanding line. I think having that balance really helps us outscore teams.”
Southside Christian has averaged 39 points this season. That number has jumped to an average of 58 points in three playoff games.
Allendale-Fairfax has arrived at the same destination by traveling on the ground. The Tigers have attempted a total of 61 passes this season. They operate out of the Wing-T, following the recent trend of Lower State champions that Christ Church has seen.
In 2012, the Cavaliers, featuring their spread attack, beat Johnsonville, which had 305 yards rushing and minus-5 passing in the championship game.
In 2013, Demetrius Anthony passed for 175 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 90 yards and two scores in Christ Church’s 28-21 win over Carvers Bay, which had 289 yards rushing and 12 passing.
Last year, Andrew Slade passed for 255 yards and two touchdowns in the Cavaliers’ 23-14 win over Bamberg-Ehrhardt, yet another ground-oriented team.
Likewise, Southside Christian has seen plenty of teams on the run. The last two the Sabres played, Williston-Elko in the second round and McBee in the Upper State final, had great success running the ball all season and even in the first half against Southside Christian.
But in the second half, the Sabres outscored W-E 35-6 and McBee 35-8.
“All the teams we played in the playoffs, they’re really, really good teams,” said Tolbert. “They have some outstanding runners and a good line, but I think it does help that we sort of know what they lean towards, so that we can get prepared for our defense to focus on that.”
Not so with the Sabres, who average 225 yards rushing and 215 passing per game.
“It definitely adds another dimension to the game,” Holden said of the passing. “It leaves them guessing. Are you going to give it to Quintyn? Are you going to throw it over the top?”
Holden quickly added, “It’s not a huge advantage, because they’ve got good athletes as well, so they can cover.”
And as Allendale-Fairfax coach Eddie Ford said, “We’ve been playing spread teams all year. The last two teams we’ve played have been spread teams, so our scout teams already kind of know what it is.”
The Tigers saw a well-oiled spread in the second round against Calhoun County, which threw for 244 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-20 defeat. But A-F returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and took advantage of a fumbled punt snap to advance.
The Sabres’ spread has been extremely efficient in recent weeks, largely because of the one taking the snaps.
“It’s hard to simulate Clayton Coulter,” SCS coach Jason Kaiser said. “He is a special kid.”
Kaiser said with first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sonneborn simplifying the plan and first-year offensive line coach Allan Lowy coming on board, “It really has established a system for them to understand and be comfortable with.”
That, plus conditioning, the Sabres agree, is a formula for success.
“Our offense, we’re always running around,” Holden said. “You’re either chasing Quintyn or our receivers downfield. Once we get that one big play and we’re settled in, it’s like, ‘OK, now we’re going to do what we do.’ That’s when it gets fun.”
“Say I bust a long play,” said Reeder. “Then we all hurry up for the next play, and it throws the defense off. They don’t have time to switch in linemen or change plays. We’re just on it, and that wears out the defense.”
Kaiser said it can become even more of a factor at smaller schools, where kids are playing offense and defense.
“You’re running after receivers, running down the field, and you’re going to get tired,” Kaiser said. “What we’re able to do is be the more well-conditioned team.
“They have about 50 on their roster. We’re at 35. I’ve watched a lot of film, and it seems like they’re still playing a lot of kids both ways. With our offense the way we run it and our defense the way we run it, if we can get them worn out, it would be great.”
Of course, Kaiser added, there’s an intangible with the potential to trump strategy and schemes.
“They’re not going to lay down for us,” he said, “and they’re as hungry as we are.”
At Benedict College, Columbia
CLASS AA DIVISION I
Dillon vs. Newberry, 7 p.m.
CLASS A DIVISION I
Southside Christian vs. Allendale-Fairfax, noon
CLASS A DIVISION II
Lamar vs. C.E. Murray, 3 p.m.
CLASS AA DIVISION II
Abbeville vs. Silver Bluff, 6 p.m.
CLASS AAAA DIVISION I
Dorman at Byrnes, 7:30 p.m.
Goose Creek at Fort Dorchester, 7:30 p.m.
CLASS AAAA DIVISION II
Lexington at Spartanburg, 7:30 p.m.
Nation Ford at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m.
UPPER STATE FINAL
Union County at South Pointe, 7:30 p.m.
LOWER STATE FINAL
Myrtle Beach at Midland Valley, 7:30 p.m.