There are several things in common between the high school football teams from Aiken and Blythewood, who will face off tonight at Hagood Stadium.
Both the Hornets and the Bengals are run-first offenses that rely on the ability to break big plays with the ball and prevent them on defense. Neither team is over-reliant on a superstar, but instead counts on a number of players who execute tried and true gameplans. And both squads opened the season with losses against tough opponents.
What the teams have done since their openers is where the paths diverge. Blythewood (4-1) has rallied for four consecutive wins, outscoring opponents by a combined total of 142-40. Aiken (2-3), on the other hand, lost its second game before posting back-to-back victories. The momentum it built from wins over Midland Valley and Richland Northeast was stifled last week, following a 17-7 loss to traditional power Irmo.
Now, the Hornets will try to regain their winning form in their final non-region game of the season. The challenge will be bouncing back against a disciplined and tough opponent, one that they've never faced before.
"We want to go into the region with a win," Aiken head coach Carey Johnson said. "We need momentum going into the region; (a win) would be big."
To achieve that and head into their Region 5-AAAA opener on a high note, the Hornets will have to deliver a sound defensive performance. The Bengals are a power running team that likes to spread out its opponents and then slam them with one of the primary ball carriers.
Devin Albert, Dean Beckford and Ben Ruiz all get a good amount of touches and have been hard for opponents to stop. The trio has combined for 126 carries, resulting in 592 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"They've got a few guys they give the ball to, but the main guys will carry the load," Johnson said. "They're more of a run team, but they have threats on the outside and the quarterback throws the ball well. He will hit you with a deep ball."
Blythewood's quarterback is Kylen Binn. So far this season, the senior has completed 46 of 75 passes for 490 yards and five touchdowns. His top targets are Shyheim Brown and Javon Smith, and they've combined for 27 receptions for 301 yards and three scores. Although the Bengals are a capable team with the ball, their strength is on defense.
Blythewood isn't an overwhelmingly big team, but it makes up for that with tremendous speed.
"They've got the most team speed we've seen this year," Johnson said. "They play defense really well and are fundamentally sound. The linebackers hit hard and run well. … There's no weaknesses.
"We have to check their speed because they come off the football so well."
If there's one aspect that Aiken can compete with most foes, it's in overall team speed. The Hornets feature several players who are standouts in track and are looking to maximize those advantages. Johnson hinted that he may have a few tricks up his sleeve tonight, moving some key personnel around to give them greater opportunities to contribute. The biggest name who could be on the move is starting quarterback Will Heggs.
Heggs, who finished third in the 100-meter dash in the state championship meet, has been solid in first season as starting quarterback, but Johnson and his staff want to expand his role and may line the junior speedster up at tailback.
"We might possibly move him around and let him play running back," Johnson said, adding that Devante Gaiters will line up under center in such occasions. "He's (one of the) fastest guys in the state; we need to let him get more touches."
If Heggs becomes more of a traditional ball carrier, it will give the Hornets an explosive one-two punch for their Wing-T offense. He'll team with Nakeem Spann, one of the leading rushers in the area with 341 yards and six touchdowns on 38 carries. If given room, they can run wild thanks to their tremendous speed. Getting them into the open field will be the Hornets' challenge.
They're facing a defense that flies around the field and is capable of being disruptive. Regardless of who plays quarterback for Aiken, he likely won't pass a lot. But the Hornets will still have to contend with Blythewood defensive lineman Terrell Vaughn, who has 27 tackles - seven for loss of yards - and five sacks this season. Jalen Williams is the Bengals' leading tackler with 49 stops, but they count a number of playmakers including linebackers Tony Rebollo and Derek Miller.
Defensive back Joe Kelly is also a difference maker, recording 32 tackles to go with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
"They're physical and fast," Johnson warned.
One speedster Aiken won't have is Gabe Green. He was injured in the loss to Irmo and won't be available tonight. Defensive end William Spann will also be out and hulking defensive tackle Robert Davis is also a question mark because of an injury. Being thin and relying on reserves to man the defensive front will make the Hornets' task more daunting, but Johnson is confident his team will rise to the challenge if it takes care of its own business.
"We need to be more physical and cut out the mental mistakes," Johnson said. "Because of some things, some guys have tried to overcompensate and do too much. You need to just carry out your own assignment."
Noah Feit is the Sports Editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.