You never really know how this one will go.

Last year North Laurel came into the South Laurel game with huge wins over Pulaski County and Knox Central. They had confidence and swagger, but were nearly blindsided in a tough 7-6 win over South Laurel. This year the Jaguars do have a loss and may not have as much swagger, but they did get a win last week over Williamsburg. South Laurel is still looking for that first win after losses to two quality opponents. The Cardinals had chances to turn things around in losses to both Letcher County Central and Knox Central.

“We’re in a pretty good mood, but it’s frustrating. We have some frustration with that. You like to be competitive, but being competitive you are still 0-2,” South Laurel coach Larry Welch said.

North Laurel coach Chris Larkey has noticed as well that the Cardinals losses have come against good competition. Knox Central returned a lot from last year’s seven-win team and has high expectations. Letcher County Central made it to the region finals last year and also returned key players.

“South held their own with both of them,” Larkey said. “They are a lot better than they were last year.”

The things that have kept South Laurel playing from behind the first two weeks are mostly small. They have been burned by big plays, struggled to sustain drives, and turned the ball over too much.

“You have to do that extra to get that win. We’ve talked about being more physical, catching passes we need to catch, breaking the tackles when we are running the football. The little things that get you over the hump,” Welch said.

Larkey’s biggest concern against the Cardinals is speed, something he said his team isn’t blessed with a lot of this year.

“Who knows how much speed they’ve got? They’ve got it everywhere and we don’t. It’s hard to combat speed. They’re big too,” Larkey said.

The Cardinals speed means the North Laurel defensive backs will have to keep receivers from blowing past them for big plays. Larkey said it will also be vital for the defense to tackle well.

The biggest threat is South Laurel’s Tyler Vaughn, who rushed for over 1,400 yards last year at tailback. This year Vaughn has moved to quarterback and added the threat of throwing the ball.

“I think South is going to move him around. He’s going to line up at quarterback and run some. He’s the best player they have, but not the only player they have,” Larkey said. “Now he is a threat to throw it or run it. He can throw to their fast receivers and he is a threat when he has the ball in his hands,”

Welch expects North Laurel to try to counter speed with force.

“I’m sure, our kids are sure too, that they are going to try to come in here and be physical and run the ball at us, play action, good physical attacking defense,” Welch said. “Going into the game we have to be ready to counter that.”

Last week the South Laurel offense moved the ball to the tune of 150 yards in the first half, but managed just over 30 yards in the second half.

“Part of it was execution. We didn’t hold our block long enough. Their four down linemen were very physical,” Welch said. “Our offensive line didn’t do what we need to do up front.”

In two games, the Cardinals have yet to sustain a long drive. Their points have come on big plays. Welch attributes some of the struggles to trying to find the right personnel in the first game. The second game may have been a Knox Central defense that has turned in two solid efforts.

“We’re trying to work on that. That’s what you want to do on offense,” Welch said. “The quick strike is real good and exciting, but you have to sustain some drives.”

South Laurel must prepare for a North Laurel team that is similar in style, but different in personnel than last year.

“It’s pretty much the same team. They’ve got a couple of different backs. They don’t have Adrian (Wardrup),” Welch said. “The quarterback (Johnny Ray Fugate) can keep the ball and do some damage and they have a couple of nice receivers they can throw to out of play action.”

The Jaguars completed seven of 12 passes against Williamsburg, including a 30-yard touchdown by Fugate to Michael Nelson. Larkey said there were also some balls dropped by the receivers.

“Johnny Ray is going to have to help us get down the football field and the receivers going to have to catch the ball,” he said.

North Laurel had three backs run for over 100 yards against Williamsburg. Jason Williams, Hughie Wagers, and Ronnie Rotundi are expected to continue to share the ball in the backfield.

“It’s running back by committee, whoever is running good is going to be in there and if they slack off there will be someone in their place. They understand that. We are not a jealous football team,” Larkey said. “Our offensive line did a really good job; of course, we outmanned Williamsburg on the offensive line. This week, we won’t be stronger than South Laurel’s line.”

Before last year’s win by North Laurel, the Cardinals had won two straight in the series. Overall, South Laurel holds the lead in the series, 12-6.

Both teams are a little banged up after two games. Tyler Vaughn was knocked out of the Knox Central game for a handful of plays after taking a helmet to the thigh. He is still sore, but shouldn’t be affected Friday. Eric Bowling will be out at least five more weeks after breaking his foot against Letcher Central. Sophomore Andrew King suffered a knee injury in a junior varsity game.

Larkey expects everyone to be ready to go for North Laurel against the Cardinals.

Mitch Howard can be reached at mitch.howard@sentinel.echo.com.

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