By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
There is a lot on the line this week when North Laurel travels to Madison Southern. Coach Chris Larkey knows it and his team knows it.
“They know if we win we have a home playoff game. They know if we win we’re going to have a winning season. We’re already in the playoffs,” Larkey said.
The Jaguars and Eagles both have one loss on the season. Both teams lost to unbeaten Pulaski County. Madison Southern fell 21-18 and North Laurel 42-26. The winner this week is in the driver’s seat for No. 2 seed in the district, which will host a home playoff game. The loser’s first round game will likely be at Letcher Central or Perry Central.
There are other reasons this game is different than most. The Jaguars will be playing on turf and will be in front of a lot of college coaches. It will be Senior Night for Madison Southern and North Laurel will get to play against Michigan signee Damien Harris.
“We talked a lot about playing against Damien Harris. It’s a privilege to play against Damien Harris because one day you may be sitting at home watching TV and you could say I tackled that guy playing on TV for Michigan. It’s something to brag about,” Larkey said.
The Eagles junior running back currently ranks third in the state with 1,587 yards on the season with 24 touchdowns. He has rushed for over 200 yards five times with a season high 319 against Madison Central. His season low of 114 came against South Laurel. In that game he carried the ball just eight times with four going for touchdowns.
“He likes to run outside, but he will bounce it back inside. He’s got quick moves. He’s very fast and makes you miss,” Larkey said.
There is little question Harris will be carrying the load. Madison Southern’s next leading rusher has 100 total yards on eight carries. The Jaguars plan to control Harris is simple.
“Tackle him. We can’t miss tackles. We have to wrap him up. Don’t try to go kill him because if you do you’re going to miss him,” Larkey said.
Quarterback Aaron Sloan has been effective in the few times he has been called upon to throw the ball. Sloan has completed 22-of-34 passes (64 percent) for 295 yards and five touchdowns. His favorite target is Devate Linville with 12 catches for 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Linville is averaging a game-breaking 30 yards per catch.
“The quarterback is good. They have a few good receivers, but Damien Harris is their best player and everybody knows that. That’s the guy you’ve got to key on to stop,” Larkey said.
The Jaguars are coming off a school record 507 rushing yards against Lincoln County. That included a career high 318 yards for Gabe Blair, who also topped 1,000 yards for the season.
“I think Madison Southern has a better defense than Lincoln County did. They are a lot bigger and it’s going to be hard for Gabe to carry the ball 30 times like he did,” Larkey said. “I’m not sure what we’ll be able to do.”
They are also not sure who will be available to do it. Michael Nelson is still a game time decision after missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain.
Madison Southern has allowed 14.3 points per game, which ranks No. 13 in the state. They are also among state leaders in scoring margin (26.4) and rushing yards allowed per game (105).
The Jaguars have not played or practiced on a turf field this year. They did play at Madison Southern last year in a 26-10 Eagles win. Harris rushed for 193 yards and four touchdowns in that game. North Laurel actually outgained Madison Southern last year 234-229 on the ground.
Madison Southern also won 35-31 at North Laurel in 2011 despite 284 yards rushing from Blair and 175 from Nelson. North Laurel’s last win over Madison Southern was 2006 when the David Abbott coached team won 35-34. The Eagles were off the North Laurel schedule the next five years until joining the Jaguars district.