ROCKINGHAM — It will be the “Battle of the Unbeatens” tonight in the marquee matchup in the Southeastern Conference.
Richmond vs. Hoke County. The Raiders against the Bucks. 5-0 vs. 6-0.
At the end of the night, one team will walk out of Raider Stadium with a loss, while the other will keep its dream of capturing a league championship alive for at least another week.
If that wasn’t enough to get both squads fired up, toss last year’s 24-21 come-from-behind win by Hoke to snap a 34-game losing streak into the mix and a budding rivalry could be blossoming.
Richmond coach Paul Hoggard quickly dismissed the notion his team will be gunning for revenge against the Bucks.
“I haven’t heard them (his players) mention it,” Hoggard said about last season’s game. “Most of the focus has been on the start of the conference season. These are all crucial games now, we play in a tough conference.”
The Raiders’ defensive coordinator, James Johnson, agrees looking to avenge the defeat hasn’t been the main motivator during this week’s practices.
“I haven’t heard it, but it could be in the back of their mind,” Johnson said. “I think that really only lasts about one play, then the focus is on the game plan.”
Hoke coach Milton Butts laughed at the thought of the Richmond players sitting in film sessions and on the practice fields plotting revenge.
“I don’t think they will need any extra motivation to get fired up,” Butts said. “Last year, I didn’t know about the 34-game losing streak until after the game when everyone started telling me about it.”
No matter if the Raiders are actively seeking to avenge the loss or trying to knock off their first conference rival, they will have to do it shorthanded. The team’s leading rusher, Dakwa Nichols, will be sidelined because of a sprained foot suffered in the first quarter of Week 5’s 39-14 win at West Forsyth.
Nichols has rushed for 518 yards and eight touchdowns on 46 carries.
Hoggard said Diquon Cox and Elijah Goodwin as well as Reggie Harden will see addition action in Nichols’ absence. Cox is second on the team in rushing with 344 yards and five scores in 35 touches. Goodwin has 172 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries, while Harden has run for 162 yards and three scores on 14 carries in limited duty.
“Elijah will get his carries up a little bit and Diquon’s carries will go up a little bit as well,” Hoggard said. “We’re lucky to still be blessed with depth at the running back spot.”
Last year, Cox and Goodwin moved up from the junior varsity ranks and were called upon in the Raiders’ final two games of the season against Scotland and Northwest Guilford after injuries sidelined starters Steve Houston, Ridge Sato and Nichols.
“They are a year older and more mature,” Hoggard said. “It is their time to step up and shine.”
While Hoggard is looking to piece together a backfield without Nichols, Butts has one of the better running backs in the region ready to shoulder the load against the Raiders — Detrez Newsome. The senior has already crossed the 1,000-yard mark on the season with 1,369 yards and 21 touchdowns.
“Newsome is a good running back,” Butts said. “We’re a team, so someone has to be blocking for him and someone has to be handing the ball to him, but he means a lot to the team.”
Johnson agrees there is more to the Bucks than just No. 6.
“They have other weapons, they have two guys at quarterback, one is mainly a passer (Michael Locklear) and the other is a good runner (Geoffrey Thompson),” Johnson said. “Newsome is just really good, he’s a pretty special talent.
“Pursuit is going to be a main thing we have to worry about because Newsome is good at finding a lane and cutting back. His vision is outstanding for a high school player.”
Johnson added unlike some teams that will try to disguise or fool a defense as what they are trying to accomplish, the Bucks are a smashmouth-type of offense.
“They are very good at what they do,” Johnson said. “They aren’t complicated in what they do because they are typically an “I” football team. Sometimes are in a one-back set but they still want to do the same things.”
Johnson’s unit, unlike the offense, received some good news on the injury front this week. Starting cornerbacks Thomas Calhoun and Devontae Watkins are expected to start tonight. Calhoun missed most the West Forsyth contest with a hamstring injury and only started to practice with the team Wednesday, while Watkins did not practice this week after being involved in an automobile accident.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com.