HARROGATE, Tenn. — Football bragging rights in Claiborne County are on the line tonight as the Cumberland Gap Panthers visit the Claiborne Bulldogs.
This year the Panthers (5-2, 3-1 in district play) come in as the favorites while Claiborne (2-5, 0-3) can turn their season around with a win. The Bulldogs have a three-game winning streak in the series.
“Kids are very excited about it. It’s a rivalry game and they’ve won the last three,” said Cumberland Gap coach Neal Pucciarelli. “We’ve got a lot of seniors that have never beaten them and they’re really motivated to come out of there with a win.”
Panthers are coming off a 60-7 loss at Greeneville. Pucciarelli said his team came out of that game “in pretty good shape for the most part” health-wise. But there are two schools of thought on whether having the big rivalry game the week after Greeneville is a good idea.
“I could think of a lot better weeks to be playing Claiborne,” he said. “I don’t think it helps us to go into this game after going up there and having our hats handed to us. It’s kind of demoralizing because we were playing well and it doesn’t do anything for our confidence.
“On the other hand, it helps the players to get over that game and move one. Hopefully we won’t have an extended letdown from that game and hopefully we’ll come out an play well.”
The Panther spread offense is led by senior quarterback Blake Franklin. He’s completed 80-of-139 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns with just four interceptions on the year and has ran for another 310 yards and 11 TDs. Senior Wesley Nance is Cumberland Gap’s top rusher with 652 yards and two scores on 73 carries. Dylan Gambrel (21-351) and Chase Smith (17-253) are the Panthers leading receivers.
The Bulldogs feature a balanced offense led by quarterback Joseph Ledford, running back Tyler Hatfield and receiver Paul Estep.
“First of all we need to correct the turnover problems that we had last week,” Pucciarellia said. “Their quarterback is an excellent athlete, they’ve got a good running back and on the film we saw both of their lines played well against Grainger. They’ve got a lot of weapons, Estep is a dangerous receiver, they’re a good, solid team.”
He added that the biggest key for the Panthers is to stop the Bulldogs from making big plays.
“You might say they haven’t had a lot of big plays this year, but they beat us with big plays last year,” said Pucciarelli. “They had three long completions and returned a punt for a touchdown so we’ve got to take away those big plays.
“Defensively, they gave us problems last season and they’ve got most of those kids back. It should be a great game.”
The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m.