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Backers vs. backs

It’s almost nave to single out any one aspect of tonight’s Demopolis vs. Deshler state championship game and say it’s the most important.

The way the offensive line blocks, the penetration of the defensive line, the accuracy of the quarterback and the momentum of the running game — all those things are important.

On the other hand, fans and coaches alike will get a pretty good feel for the Class 4A state title game if they watch the match-up between Deshler’s impressive running attack and Demopolis’s corps of linebackers.

Yes, both groups have been discussed — ad nauseum — this week, but let’s take one more look at how important this key battle will be tonight.

First, understand how potent the Deshler running attack has been all season.

DHS fans will become quite familiar with Duran Coger (No. 3) for Deshler. Coger lines up at tailback and has rushed for 1,270 yards and 24 TDs this season. While Coger gets the majority of the rushes, Deshler’s effective running game doesn’t stop with No. 3.

The (Deshler) Tigers line up in a Wing-T offense, and fullback Brandon Moore (No. 45) has rushed for 308 yards and eight TDs this year. According to DHS head coach Doug Goodwin, Moore is used primarily on short-yardage plays but he’s just as damaging when he blocks for Coger.

That’s not the end of the offensive backfield threat for Deshler, either. Martez Cole (No. 1) lines up as the wing back and he’s so small he can virtually hid behind his linemen. Most times, Cole is positioned behind the left side of the offensive line, almost in a slot behind one of the two tight ends. And by the way, Cole has rushed for 491 yards and 14 TDs this season.

While Deshler’s running attack is, by far, its only real offensive threat, quarterback Chris Nance (No. 7) efficiently plays the role of field general. Not unexpectedly, Nance also can run. Last week, in Deshler’s semifinal win over Alexandria, Nance faked a hand-off to Coger and darted 60 yards for a touchdown. On the year, Nance has run for 601 yards and 11 TDs.

In the first 14 games of the season, you might think an impressive running attack is of little concern to Demopolis. In case you haven’t seen the stat sheet, DHS limits opposing teams to a whopping 5-points-per-game average. On top of that, the (real) Tigers average 51.8 points a game, meaning any opposing team with a decent offense still can’t keep up with DHS.

As the obnoxious Lee Corso would say: “Not so fast, my friend.”

During preparations this week, Goodwin has repeatedly said Deshler is a lot like Thomasville, who Demopolis faced in the second round of the playoffs. In a sense, that’s reason enough for concern.

For starters, Thomasville is the only team DHS didn’t defensively man-handle all season. Secondly, Demopolis averaged 58 points a contest, but THS figured out a way to hold Demopolis to 44 points below its average.

If Thomasville compares best to Deshler, there’s something else that quickly gets your attention. Against Thomasville on Nov. 19, Demopolis gave up 137 yards rushing — 122 of them to running back Nick Williams.

Thomasville also picked up 11 first downs against the Tigers, while DHS had just 13 first downs.

The most critical stat of the Thomasville game, however, could be seen at the very top of the scoreboard. In the ever important time-of-possession category, Thomasville kept the ball for 26:23; Demopolis had the ball for 21:37.

Thomasville couldn’t find its way into the endzone against Demopolis, but you can bet Deshler has the experience and depth to will the ball across the goal line. If that’s the case, then Demopolis’s four powerful linebackers have the most important job of the night — which brings us back to our key match-up.

Ezell Braxton, Clarke Kerby, Seth Basinger and Chris Cupit don’t stand on the defensive side of the ball by themselves. They have a strong defensive line that finds a way to pressure the quarterback and forces running backs to unwillingly change directions. Those linebackers also play in front of the best secondary in Class 4A. Even still, there’s no way Demopolis will stop the Deshler running game if Braxton, Kerby, Basinger and Cupit have an off night.

Film of Deshler shows that quarterback Chris Nance does a good job with his ball fakes. Even the running backs know how to confuse opposing defenses.

On one offensive play against Alexandria last week, Nance handed the ball to Coger and the play looked like a straight run. Out of nowhere, Cole — the wing back — cut through the offensive backfield and Coger handed Cole the ball. That’s right, Deshler handed the ball off twice on the same play and, unlike a traditional reverse, the handoffs didn’t take long to materialize.

The key for the DHS linebackers, obviously, is to read Nance and the host of running backs Deshler uses. If Ezell and Cupit get caught chasing the ball from their outside linebacker positions, Deshler will burn them. If Kerby and Basinger bunch of the middle and Deshler takes the ball outside, they’ll take themselves out of too many plays.

The reason these linebackers are so important is as clear as the DHS stat sheet. Basinger leads the team in tackles with 113; Kerby is second with 104. At outside linebacker, Cupit has 79 tackles and Braxton has 64 on the year. (Braxton also leads the team in sacks with eight.)

If Demopolis is to win tonight’s Class 4A state championship, they must do the same things they’ve done all season. That means the linebackers must lead the team in tackles.