LAURINBURG — “All of my boys are on the same mission, I know it’s my last game with the seniors. We want to go out on top, and we’ve stayed focused and worked hard.”
Scotland senior defensive lineman and all-Southeastern Conference performer Mazani Stubbs is no stranger to the Scotland-Richmond rivalry.
He played a key part in helping the Scots shut down an explosive Raiders’ offense in their meeting last season in Rockingham, and hopes his unit will have a repeat performance when Scotland welcomes Richmond to Pate Stadium tonight at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re just doing what our coaches ask us to do, I know they’re going to put us in a position to win,” Stubbs said. “We’re the best defense in the state and we’re going to do what we’ve been doing all season.”
Scotland enters the contest as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press 4A poll, while Richmond checks in at No. 7 after defeating Pinecrest a week ago in Southern Pines.
When the two rivals clash tonight, it will mark the fifth straight year that the SEC championship will be on the line. Scotland has won all four of those contests, which includes a 34-13 victory last year over a previously-undefeated Richmond squad.
The pregame hype the week of a Scotland-Richmond tilt is always high, but this season it seems to be at a fever pitch as fans of both programs are set to converge on Laurinburg. Scotland coach Richard Bailey said over 6,000 pre-sale tickets have already been sold, and he expects around 2,000 more to be purchased at the gate before kickoff.
“I’ve been here for four years and we’ve never sold this many tickets in advance,” Bailey said.
The Scots are riding a 24-game SEC win streak dating back to 2011, and are a perfect 10-0 this season. Richmond is 9-1 with its lone loss coming early in the season against Butler.
But the Raiders are a much-improved team since that 32-13 defeat to the Bulldogs — Richmond has since scored impressive wins over Dudley and Pinecrest.
“They’re fast, and that’s my biggest concern is that they do have some speed,” Bailey said. “They have some really good skill players.”
Mike Castellano’s offense is a unit that has steadily gained traction as the season has progressed. The Raiders are quarterbacked by Leon Zeigler, who has thrown 28 touchdowns this season to go along with seven interceptions. The junior is also a running threat as he showcased last week, rushing for 79 yards and four touchdowns.
Richmond’s rushing attack, which has not been as prolific as it was under former coach Paul Hoggard last year, has seen steady growth. All-SEC tailback Quientel Goodwin ran for 151 yards on 24 carries a week ago and has amassed 720 yards and five touchdowns this season.
On the outside, receiver Lavell Ellerbe has 40 receptions for 835 yards and 11 scores. Many of those yards were a result of screen passes or taking a forward pitch on jet sweeps.
“They’re all about getting their athletes in space, they like to run and throw on the perimeter,” Bailey said. “They’re very good at fly sweeps and running on the perimeter.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between this Richmond team and those in recent years is the improved defense in Castellano’s initial campaign. The Raiders are only allowing 14.6 points per game and are coming off a performance where they held an explosive Pinecrest offense to seven second-half points.
“They’re definitely better on defense,” Bailey said. “They have some better players, but I think schematically they’re a little bit better than they were … .
“You can tell what they’re coaching and they do a good job of executing it.”
Richmond’s hallmark this season has been getting to the quarterback, forcing turnovers and creating big plays on special teams. The Raiders have recorded 30 sacks and intercepted 13 passes as a team, and returned five turnovers for touchdowns. Reciever Octavius Harris has returned three punt returns for touchdowns while Daryus Skinner has taken two back to the house.
“Richmond is very good at taking the ball away, they’re very good on special teams and creating special plays whether that is with onside kicks, fake punts, punt returns, kick returns, interception returns…they do a good job of turning those big-momentum plays,” Bailey said. “We have to make sure we don’t let those things happen and if they do, we have to buckle down.”
While the Scots have not been as adept at getting to the quarterback (nine sacks), they make up for it by creating turnovers of their own (nine interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries). Scotland is allowing opposing offenses to score 16.1 points per game, though a bulk of that has come with the first-team defense on the sideline. Seven times this season, the Scots’ second unit has finished the game due to it being out of reach.
The 19 forced turnovers pale in comparison to the mistakes, or lack thereof, that the offense has committed this season. Starting quarterback Dashaun Ferguson has a perfect 12-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and backup Sergio Gibson has thrown five scoring strikes compared to one pick. Scotland has lost eight fumbles, but with an average of less than one turnover per game, Bailey said he’ll take the plus-10 turnover differential any day.
“We’re a high-reward, low-risk offense,” Bailey said. “We try not to put the ball in harm’s way.”
The Raiders’ most daunting task will be to try to slow down star running back Zamir White, who has all but locked up SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors. The sophomore has rushed for 1,833 yards and 36 touchdowns on 216 carries and should be rested after toting the ball 11 times or less in each of Scotland’s past two contests.
While tonight’s game is one with seeding implications and a great deal of bragging rights on the line, Bailey said ultimately its one more stop before the real fun, the North Carolina state playoffs, begins.
“The thing we can’t lose sight of is that although (today) is important, it isn’t end of the season. Regardless of the outcome if we win or don’t, we have to come back Monday ready to win a state championship.”
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.