MATTHEWS – At the end of practice on Oct. 15, Butler football coach Brian Hales reminded the Bulldogs of something the team probably didn’t need to be reminded of.
A year ago, Butler was riding a six-game win streak when Hickory Ridge came to Matthews and posted a thrilling 43-32 victory over the Bulldogs. The Ragin’ Bulls drove 60 yards in just under a minute and scored a touchdown and two-point conversion with 28 seconds left in the contest to rally for the win.
Hales reminded the Bulldogs (5-2, 3-0) there is a lot on the line Oct. 19 when they travel to Hickory Ridge (4-3, 2-1). After wins over Porter Ridge and Myers Park in the past two weeks, Butler is in the Southwestern 4A driver’s seat. But that road, which could result not only in a league title but a first-round playoff bye, is still a long and difficult one.
Hales said the Bulldogs offense will have to execute against a disciplined Hickory Ridge defense that has given up just 34 points in three conference games.
“The thing with Hickory Ridge is that they are going to give us so many different looks,” Hales said. “They are playing a 3-4 defense that is similar to what we ran a few years ago. They do a great job with it and disguising stuff. We are going to make that defense look really, really good if we don’t do our job. If we are able to communicate and we are able to see things coming and do our job, I don’t think they are going to do anything that should slow us down.”
Butler opened conference play with two close road victories over Rocky River and Porter Ridge before the Bulldogs totally dominated then undefeated Myers Park in a 39-22 victory at home on Oct. 5. Hales said winning two close road games that went down to the wire will help the Bulldogs the rest of the season.
“They were very important for our development,” he said. “It showed our guys if we play well, we can look very, very good. We played really well for a quarter at Rocky River. We were scoring touchdowns and two-point conversions. We played well for three quarters and one drive against Porter Ridge. But that also showed that if we don’t play really well for four quarters, we can get in a hole pretty fast, too. Obviously, against Myers Park, we put together four quarters. It also shows that if we are put in a tough situation, we are able to execute. There is no panic in this group.”
Butler has offered up a balanced offensive attack the first seven games of the season as the Bulldogs are averaging 200 yards rushing and 175 yards passing a game. Quarterback Christian Peters is 86-of-170 passing for 1,230 yards and nine touchdowns. Seven different receivers have at least 100 yards in receptions with Keyon Lesane, who missed two games, leading the way with 19 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
Running back Jamal Worthy has rushed 96 times for 608 yards and 11 touchdowns while Quasean Holmes has 88 carries for 483 yards and nine touchdowns.
“It was a blessing in disguise to not have Keyon for a couple of weeks because it forced some guys to step up,” Hales said. “We had more guys take leadership roles as well. Once we got Keyon back in the mix and doing the things he does well, it is forcing teams to defend everything. Christian has been doing a great job communicating and letting everyone know what is going on.”
Hickory Ridge is led by first-year head coach Sam Greiner, who last season guided Harding to the Class 4A championship with a 14-1 record. Greiner was named the state’s coach of the year by the Associated Press and USA Today last season. In his first season at Harding in 2015, Harding was 1-10 but they rebounded in 2016 with a 5-7 record while making a playoff appearance for the first time in six seasons.
Hurricane Michael forced the cancellation of Butler’s game with rival Independence on Oct. 12, but that game has been rescheduled for Nov. 9. Because of the impacts of Hurricane Florence on the eastern part of the state back in September, the NCHSAA extended the season by a week to allow teams to makeup games. Hales said not playing last week may be a good thing if things go the Bulldogs way the rest of the season.
“We were potentially looking at two weeks off before our first playoff game with them pushing the playoffs back,” Hales said. “If we win the conference, we get that first-round bye.”
And Hales thinks playing Independence on the last week of the regular season is good for the players and fans alike.
“We also get Independence for the last regular season game of the year and that is always a special deal,” Hales said. “For about 15 years, it was always us and them for the last game. It’s good to have that game at the end.”