During the first month of the football season, Irmo coach Bob Hanna had an opening stretch that included ranked teams South Pointe, Myrtle Beach and Greenwood. The Yellow Jackets lost all three but, Hanna felt a turnaround was possible.
Now in the second week of November, Irmo will play host to White Knoll on Friday night at W.C. Hawkins Stadium in the second round of the Class 4A Division I state playoffs with a resurgent team.
The turnaround began with a two-point victory against Lexington in the fourth game, and the Yellow Jackets have won seven of nine games to continue the roll into the postseason.
The difference has been an offense that is playing mostly mistake-free and a defense that has been stellar all season.
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“Our offense has not turned the ball over,” Hanna said. “We had a bunch of problems in our protection schemes on punts early in the year and the offense turned the ball over. I think consistently we were playing decent defense. But really not having our offense put our defense in bad situations has really made a difference.”
The Yellow Jackets (7-5) never have lost to the Timberwolves (9-3) in eight tries. Hanna hopes he remembers how to stop the old-fashioned Wing-T offense his team will see.
White Knoll, which won it’s first playoff game in school history last week. is big up front and, with the running of Quinn Jones and Lamar Ray, often confuses defenses with its counters, fakes and misdirection.
Hanna said being able to practice against that type of offense is almost impossible.
“They do it uniquely,” Hanna said. “There aren’t many teams that do what they do. It’s hard to simulate it in practice. Our kids are going to have to adjust against game speed early Friday night. My defense has no idea what this is going to look like or feel like until the first quarter. We’re going to have to adjust to their physicality, their splits and stuff. They’ve come a long way since the first few times we’ve played them.”
There will not be much trickery in what the Timberwolves do.
They have ran the ball 563 times this year for 3,573 yards while throwing 33 passes for 242 yards (on 15 completions). The main problem for the Irmo defense will be figuring out who has the ball.
Jones is the faster of the two backs and leads the way with 1,459 yards on 205 carries. Ray is more physical and runs more between the tackles. Despite being banged up at times and missing three games — two that resulted in losses — he has managed to run for 1,099 yards on 155 attempts.
“They have two quality backs that really complement each other,” Hanna said. “The big kid (Ray) is a more physical, inside runner and No. 6 (Jones) is a quick kid that can break it at anytime. He’s more of a sweep-type runner. You have to take care of both sides of this offense at the same time. It’s a tough offense to prepare for. We know we have to get physical and go after it. I don’t think you can play your normal defense against it.”
Those two hide behind a big offensive line and then explode when given the chance.
“The basic premise on what they’re trying to do is to get as many people in front of the ball carrier and attack a gap,” Hanna said. “They want to get as many people there as they can and have the backs follow. Its like a rugby scrum.”
Since losing to Spring Valley, the Yellow Jackets have won four in a row and allowed 53 points in that span.
Included in that total was the 34 allowed to Blythewood in a five-overtime thriller. They allowed 10 points in regulation play in that game.
But Hanna has given as much credit to his offense for the turnaround as his defense. Grant Davitte is firmly entrenched at quarterback and Shyheim Copeland has taken over the majority of the running back duties. They haven’t blown out a lot of teams but they aren’t making crucial mistakes like they were early in the season.
For Irmo to advance to the semifinals, the Yellow Jackets need to be efficient and score when given opportunities against the ball-control style of the Timberwolves.
“We know we’re only going to get so many possessions so we have to take advantage of them,” Hanna said “We have to try and get them out of sync. If they pick up three or four yards on first down, they will continue what they’re doing and control the clock.”