For the first time since 2016, the Carmi-White County Bulldogs will host a playoff game at Harrington-Jeffries Sports Complex as the Athens Warriors come to town this Saturday afternoon.
Both teams are 7-2. The Bulldogs started the season 7-0 before losing back-to-back heartbreakers at Johnston City, 37-28, and at home to Flora, 30-24. Despite those losses, this Bulldog team still has the potential to make a playoff run, but it won’t be easy. Athens plays in the Sangamo Conference in central Illinois, one of the toughest conferences in the state. The Warriors finished the regular season as the #5 team in 1A, before being elevated to 2A for the playoffs. Athens has won at least one playoff game in each of the last nine postseasons, making it to the quarterfinals in 2014, 2015 and 2021. The Warriors made it to the semifinals in 2017 and 2019.
Athens graduated an All-State 2,000 yard rusher from the 2021 season, Ja’Kyan Shanklin. He is now playing at the University of Dubuque in Iowa. With Shanklin gone, head coach Ryan Knox has relied on three different running backs to carry the load throughout the 2022 season. Cory Craig (#42), Camren Bigard (#21), and Camden Austin (#19) have combined for over 2,500 rushing yards this year. Much like Carmi, Athens is a run-first team. Craig is the leader of the three backs. The 5-foot-8, 180 pound senior has carried the ball 150 times for 1,216 yards and 18 touchdowns. Bigard is a 5-foot-7, 160 pound junior who has rushed for 783 yards and 14 touchdowns on 110 carries. Austin is the biggest of the three, standing 5-foot-11 at 170 pounds. Austin has just 546 yards and 8 touchdowns on 54 carries, he was sidelined due to an injury in the first few weeks of the season.
Despite being a run-first offense, the Warriors will also put the ball in the air occasionally but not often with 6’0” junior quarterback, Drew Cushman (#10). Cushman has thrown the ball 56 times in 2022, completing 22 of those passes (39%) for 405 yards and 3 touchdowns with 1 interception. Tank Hill (#2) is the leading receiver for Athens with 7 receptions for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns. Carson Mueller (#3) is the only other receiver who has a touchdown reception, he’s caught 2 passes for 29 yards. Zac Laird (#9) is their 6-foot-2 junior tight end, he has caught 6 passes for 68 yards.
In terms of X’s and O’s, the Warriors run a similar offensive formation that the Bulldogs saw this season from the Fairfield Mules and Johnston City Indians. 85% of the time, they will line up in the double wing with a running back directly behind the quarterback. They will also line up in twins and trips occasionally when they need to pass the ball.
“They’re very physical,” said Carmi-White County head coach Kurt Simon. “They get off the ball well, their three backs all run the ball really hard, and they don’t put the ball on the ground.”
Defensively, expect the Warriors to stack the box against Carmi’s offense. When facing run-heavy teams this season, Athens has put six defensive linemen on the ball, with two cornerbacks, two linebackers and one safety. They have some size up front, but not to the likes of Johnston City or Fairfield. However, they make up for that size with speed and agility.
There is no question that the Bulldogs have faced some large defensive fronts this season, but it’s unlikely they have faced one this athletic. On that same note, Carmi’s offensive line has been one of the best in 2A all season long. Chase Pringle, Gavin Peyton, Nelson Rider, Bryson Moore, Austin Owen, Tyler Goemaat and Nate Brown have done a tremendous job all year in opening holes for the Bulldog running backs to run through. This game will be decided up front. If Athens can stall Carmi’s offense, and make it hard for King, Aud, and Dodgson to find running room, it will be a long day for the Dogs. However, if Carmi can get a push up front, and find ways to move the ball down the field, I like their chances. These two teams are very similar, and this game may very well become a shootout.
For the Bulldogs, they need to find the same confidence and swagger that they had in the first seven weeks of the season. Two losses to end the regular season can take a toll on a team’s mindset, but it’s very evident that when the Bulldogs are at their best, there’s not many teams in 2A that can beat them.
In last week’s loss, Isaac King became the all-time leading rusher in CWCHS & Black Diamond Conference history with 4,160 yards and counting. It is a no-brainer that Athens will be dialed in to stop #1, something that no team has done this season. King has rushed for 1,703 yards in 2022 with 21 rushing touchdowns. Last week, King found the endzone twice, giving him 23 total touchdowns on the season. That ties the all-time record for most touchdowns in a season in CWCHS history, a record he tied last season with Cameron Gunter (2011) and Logan Rogers (2010). One more touchdown will give him that record. Isaac also broke another record last week. With the two touchdowns he scored against Flora, King has now scored 49 touchdowns in his Bulldog career, and nobody has scored more.
If the Warriors find a way to stop King, they’ll have to stop Draxtyn Aud and Andrew Dodgson as well. Aud has 602 rushing yards this season on 90 carries with 14 rushing touchdowns, and he has also caught three passes for 50 yards and 2 touchdowns. Andrew Dodgson has carried the rock 21 times for 269 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 12.8 yards per carry.
With the Bulldogs being a run-heavy team, expect Athens to put 7-9 players in the box at any given time. In that situation, Carmi might need to rely on the passing game more than they have all season. Senior quarterback Warren Legg has completed 9 of his 22 pass attempts this season, for 268 yards and 6 touchdowns with no interceptions.
“We can probably do a better job at doing a little bit more play action,” said Simon. “But in general to win the game, we’re going to have to keep the ball from their offense and do what we do best, which is hang on to the football, get first downs and burn clock.”
From an injury standpoint, the Bulldogs will get two key pieces back in the lineup for Saturday’s game. Left guard and defensive lineman, Gavin Peyton, left last week’s game with a shoulder injury, but he is expected to play. Punter, kicker and backup quarterback, Mitchel Edwards, is also expected to play after he was sidelined last week due to a concussion.
“We have to play better,” said Simon. “It’s no secret to win games like this, we can’t turn the ball over and we got to play our best game of the year.”
The Bulldogs are playing in the playoffs for the second straight year. Their playoff berth in 2021 snapped a two-year streak (not counting the 2020/Spring 2021 COVID season) of missing the postseason. CWC has not won a playoff game since 2013 when they defeated Chester, 30-25 on a late touchdown pass from Chase Sailer to Brodie Brown. It’s been even longer since Carmi won a playoff game at home, 2006 to be exact, when they beat Red Hill 22-13 in the 2nd round.
Calpreps.com predicts Athens to win a close one, 30-28.
For fans who can’t attend Saturday’s game, we’ll have all the action on 97.3 FM WRUL and the WRUL Sports YouTube Channel. Kickoff is set for 2 PM, and Taylor Eye Care pre-game show will begin at 1:45 PM.
CWCHS Playoff History:
1975 – L – vs. East. St. Louis Lincoln, 33-10
1999 – L – at Chatham Glenwood, 35-0
2000 – L – at Metamora, 63-14
2001 – L – at Du Quoin, 20-14 (OT)
2003 – W – vs. Pinckneyville, 22-7
2003 – W – vs. Carterville, 19-14
2003 – L – vs. Du Quoin, 19-14
2004 – W – vs. Oakwood-Armstrong, 41-14
2004 – L – at Tolono Unity, 48-13
2005 – W – vs. CZR, 41-22
2005 – L – vs. Carterville, 21-15 (OT)
2006 – W – at Marshall, 40-11
2006 – W – vs. Red Hill, 22-13
2006 – L – at Casey-Westfield, 23-8
2007 – L – vs. Carlinville, 31-30
2010 – L – at Casey-Westfield, 36-16
2011 – L – vs. Carlyle, 35-28
2012 – L – at Casey-Westfield, 45-0
2013 – W – at Chester, 30-25
2013 – L – vs. Gillespie, 28-12
2014 – L – at Chester, 21-8
2016 – L – vs. Shelbyville, 48-6
2017 – L – at Bismarck-Henning, 37-34
2021 – L – at Breese Mater Dei, 54-16