High school football: West’s defensive line will be a key in NPC showdown

Published 11:45 pm Wednesday, November 6, 2019

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan football.

There’s still respect for it statewide because of the four consecutive 3A title-game appearances (and three state championships) from 2008-11.

There’s also respect for it around the county. It’s been a while since the Falcons have played Salisbury, but they’ve had their way against the other four schools — going 17-0 during  Joe Nixon’s head-coaching tenure in Mount Ulla that began in 2015.

Conference play is another story.  While they are usually contenders, while they are usually good, the  Falcons haven’t been great. They haven’t raised a conference championship banner since 2011, not in the South Piedmont or the North Piedmont.

They have a chance to change that Friday when they host the powerful, sixth-ranked Statesville Greyhounds, who are tied for first place with West in the NPC. The Greyhounds (10-0, 4-0) are  a steamroller, and they’re taking dead aim at the program’s first unbeaten regular season since 1989.

“Big challenge for us, but big opportunity,” West coach Joe Nixon said. “We’ll show up. Statesville is really good, but this is the kind of big game you’re looking for, the kind of game you want your kids to get to play in. You want to compete for championships.”

Statesville is big and fast and has posted scary offensive numbers — 44.6 points per game. It’s also been a perfectly balanced assault —  216 passing yards per game; 223 rushing yards per game.

To have a chance against a team like that, you have to make them one-dimensional. You have to put them in predictable situations where you know what’s coming.

Occasionally, you run into a team such as the Davie War Eagles that throws the ball so well that you have to try to make them run it.

But 95 percent of high school teams don’t throw the ball like Davie. Most of the time you try to stop the run and force teams to go to the air. Put them in third-and-6 or third-and-8 and go after the quarterback.

With a defensive line led by big seniors Chaz McCombs (6-5, 220) and Levontae Jacobs (6-3, 260) and huge junior Zeek Biggers (6-5, 300), West has always has a chance to stop the run. Other guys who will be a factor up front for the Falcons are Ashton Matthews, James Ball and Quadree Ziyad.

“We have stopped the run well with our guys up front,” Nixon said. “Those guys are a huge key for us. They allow our guys in the back to focus on the pass.”

During its current five-game winning streak, West (7-3) has been terrific against the run. That’s partly because West’s schedule has softened up considerably after a brutal stretch to open the season, but it’s also partly because West’s guys up front are very good.

“We were able to beat them because they turned it over and gave us short fields, but West is as good as anyone we’ve seen upfront,” Cox Mill coach Craig Stewart said. “They’re so big that it’s hard to move them at all. When you do manage to move them a little bit, they’re good tacklers. They’re athletic and they run well. If you do happen to get through that first wave, the second wave is coming at you awfully fast.”

McCombs is a terrific athlete. He played previously at North Rowan and West Forsyth, before returning to Rowan County for his senior seasons of football and basketball.

“It’s been good to be back with my brothers in Rowan County,” McCombs said. “We play hard, we’re together and we push each other. This is a defense that works hand in hand. We do a good job of keeping blockers off our linebackers. At the same time, if we miss a tackle, we know the linebackers are going to be there to clean it up. We have each other’s back.”

West’s winning streak started at Concord on Oct. 4. The Spiders aren’t having a good year, but West held them to 17 rushing yards on 24 attempts. That was eye-catching.

Next was East Rowan. The Mustangs average more than 200 yards rushing — Sammy Pinckney has over 1,600 rushing yards — but the Falcons held East to 90 rushing yards on 30 tries.

Against a pretty good South Iredell team that averages 161 rushing yards per game, West allowed a paltry 22 yards on 21 rushing attempts.

“As an overall defense, South Iredell probably was our best game,” said Biggers, who had a fumble recovery, an athletic interception and several tackles for loss against the Vikings. “We shut down the run and made them pass.”

North Iredell is struggling, so that was a terrible mismatch upfront. North Iredell rushed for minus-37 yards against West. It would’ve been easy to let up or go through the motions on the road against an overmatched opponent, but West took care of business with a solid effort.

“One of the good things about this team is our guys aren’t just big, they’re going to play hard all the time,” Nixon said. “That’s been our emphasis all year long. Tough practices have been a big part of that. You want practices to be harder than the games.”

West went to Carson last Friday, played in muddy conditions and won 26-7. The Cougars scored through the air in the final minute to deny West its third shutout, but the Falcons have allowed just 20 total points in their four NPC contests.

“The defensive game plan for Carson — keep them in the box and force them to throw,” McCombs said. “It was muddy, but we kept playing very hard. We did what we were supposed to do.”

Carson runs the ball well, with determined linemen and a back, Hunter Courtney, who has quickness and toughness. Carson ran it 35 times, but only netted 71 yards, basically 2 yards per snap. Carson threw the ball 21 times, at least twice the amount the Cougars like to throw it, so West executed its game plan.

An important factor in West’s defensive linemen being as good as they are is West’s offensive linemen are about equally good.

“We bring out the best in each other by pushing each other so hard in practice,” Biggers said. “And that’s not just during the season, it’s in the off-season.”

West’s offense also assists its defense by being ball-control oriented. The Falcons don’t mind running the football 50 times, and sometimes they can keep a dangerous opposing offense off the field for long stretches. West would like to keep Statesville back Caylon Imes off the field as much as possible. Imes ran for 300-plus yards against Carson and East Rowan.

As Nixon said, this is a huge challenge. It’s a chance for the Falcons to be champions again, and you don’t get to be champions by beating someone average. You get to be champions by beating a great opponent, and coach Randall Gusler’s Greyhounds are pretty great.

West is allowing 79 rushing yards per game, 100 passing yards per game, and 12.9 points per game. Along with turnovers, Statesville’s rushing yards will be the key stat.

The Falcons are 8-point underdogs, but they’ll take those odds. Playing at home in front of what should be the biggest crowd in a while, they’ve got a fighting chance.

Rowan County football has logged some solid victories this year, with Salisbury winning at defending Central Carolina Conference champ Ledford and North Rowan romping at defending Yadkin Valley Conference champ North Stanly.

Now the Falcons have their shot in a marquee game.

“It’s not like we just started getting ready for Statesville this week,” McCombs said. “This is a game we’ve been talking about since summer conditioning. This is a game that pushed us to get better.”

WSAT 1280 will broadcast Friday’s action. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.