Wildcats set to take on ‘explosive’ Yellow Jackets

Warren County quarterback Robert Rutherford looks to pass as Central's Marshall McAboy pursues during first half football action Oct. 24 in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily file

FRONT ROYAL — Warren County’s football team could breathe a little sigh of relief earlier this week.

Many of the Wildcats had been desperately trying to keep Warren County’s playoff streak alive after a dreadful 0-5 start. Facing a must-win scenario against Madison County in last week’s season finale, Warren County topped the Mountaineers and then awaited some outside help in order to break into the playoff field.

The Wildcats got that help and now find themselves as the 14th seed in the Region 3A East playoffs, with a first-round match-up against No. 3 James Monroe awaiting Warren County tonight at 7 p.m. at Maury Stadium in Fredericksburg.

“Honestly I feel like the pressure was just to get into the playoffs, and now that we’re in the playoffs, it’s just kind of like there is no pressure because it’s just do or die,” Wildcats senior linebacker Zach Moon said.

This year’s trip to the playoffs marks Warren County’s fifth straight appearance in the postseason, although the prospect of keeping that streak afloat looked bleak at the midway point of the season.

The Wildcats (4-6) struggled out of the gate under first-year head coach Steve Crist, dropping their first five games by a combined score of 159-25. But Warren County finished strong, winning four of its final five games.

“It took us a while to jell as a team and we had some players step up,” Crist said. “They stayed the course. It’s coach-speak, it sounds like, but we talked about getting better every day and getting better every week. For the most part we did that. There may have been some weeks where we weren’t better than the week before, but at least over the last half of the season I can say we got better each week.”

Warren County now faces the challenge of finding a way to upset a talented James Monroe (8-2) team that saw its seven-game win streak snapped last Friday in a 35-28 loss to 4A Courtland.

Crist called the Yellow Jackets a “very explosive” team offensively that effectively runs the spread offense by distributing the ball around to multiple playmakers. Senior quarterback Jay Scroggins leads James Monroe’s offensive attack, as he’s completed 121 of 202 passes for 1,949 yards, 23 touchdowns and six interceptions this season.

Crist said it will be important for the Wildcats to communicate effectively on defense if they hope to avoid being exposed by the Yellow Jackets, who are averaging 39 points per game this season.

“The main thing is we have to make sure we keep track of all five of their wide receivers because they’ll be spread out or they’ll bring them in,” said Moon, who added that James Monroe is the most athletic team the Wildcats have seen this season. “We have to keep track of all of them and our coverage has to be solid, and our d-line has to make sure that their quarterback doesn’t have any time to throw the ball.”

Defensively, the Yellow Jackets are allowing 22.2 points per game and have surrendered 34 points or more three different times this season.

“They’re really athletic. They’re explosive on defense,” Crist said. “They run to the ball well. They break on the ball extremely well. And they’re well coached. There’s no freelancing there.”

Warren County’s offense has developed more consistency since the midway point of the season, when junior Robert Rutherford (58 of 97 passing, 603 yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions) took over the starting quarterback job.

The Wildcats are averaging only 14.8 points and 194.2 yards per game in 2014, but have scored at least 20 points in each of their last five games. Part of that success can be attributed to the improvement in Warren County’s run game, which is led by junior Joseph Rutherford (81 carries, 455 yards, 3 TDs).

“I think we’ve taken care of the ball a lot better since those first five losses,” Joseph Rutherford said. “The run game, we weren’t running the ball very well, and then the run game just started clicking.”

Crist said the playoffs bring a sense of urgency to the weekly preparation, but he added that the key will be for Warren County to stick to its current formula.

“We’ve got to do what’s given us success over the last five or six games,” Crist said. “We can’t get too caught up in the situation. We’ve got to prepare like we always do and play our game.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com