Damien Harris meet the Harlan County ‘filthy animals’ defense. Friday’s matchup between the state’s top rusher and Class 5A’s best run defense wont be the only factor in determining who advances to the Region 4 Championship, but it is undoubtedly the most important.
“He is one of the better running backs I have faced in my career, and I have been doing this a long time. We can’t give up big plays, and have to try to contain him. Everybody tries to do that,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey. “But, they can hurt you in other places. You can’t just concentrate on him. You have to look out for the passing game.”
Harris currently leads the commonwealth with 2,128 yards and 35 touchdowns on 179 carries. Madison Southern’s standout junior running back is not only the state’s leading rusher, but is also one of the best college prospects to come from Kentucky in recent memory. The Michigan commit is ranked as the 20th best players in his class by ESPN, and also holds verbal offers from Florida, Kentucky, Notre Dame, Louisville, Ohio St., Penn St., South Carolina and Tennessee among others.
“(Damien) is as talented as anybody. He is just a good, all-around, polished player,” said Madison Southern coach Jon Clark. “He is a very big part of our success.”
While Harris is the state’s top player on the ground, the Black Bears have been one of the most successful teams in stopping the run in recent seasons. This year, Harlan County leads all of Class 5A, allowing just 77 yards per game on the ground.
“(Harris) may rush for 400 yards, but I don’t think he has faced a defense on the schedule like he will face against us. We do a pretty good job at stopping the run. We have faced some good running backs. We just have to come up to the challenge this week,” Larkey said.
The Black Bears also boast a dominant ground game. Harlan County currently ranks second in the state in rushing with 3,744 total yards on the ground. HCHS is led by a standout duo in the backfield. Senior Carson Whitehead leads the team with 1,158 yards and 14 touchdowns. Junior Fred Massey is close behind with 1,147 yards rushing and 10 scores.
“We have to tackle. They run hard. (Whitehead) is a great player, and (Massey) carries the well. They are really good players,” Clark said. “We just have to tackle well. We can’t give them second opportunities by not wrapping up and bring guys to the ground.”
The two teams should be familiar with one another. They met for the first time last season, with Harlan County pulling away late for a 41-24 victory in the second round of the playoffs. The Black Bears were successful in the trenches last year. HCHS piled up 440 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. On the defensive side, the Bears limited Harris to 133 yards, with 83 of those coming on one play.
“They have got the same football team and do some of the same things they did last year. We held him pretty good last year except for one big long play,” Larkey said. “I think we do more things this year. Lately, we have spread the field and do more things outside, instead of just running it up the middle every play. We have to open it up and do some things this week they haven’t seen.”
A victory would send Harlan County to its fourth straight regional championship. The Black Bears already have two regional trophies to go along with four consecutive district titles. Larkey hopes that postseason success will benefit his team on Friday.
“I think they want to keep up the tradition of what we have been doing,” Larkey said. “We can’t go in expecting something is going to happen just because it has in the past. We have to do things now. But, I think the experience has really helped this team prepare for these types of games.”
While Harlan County has been a fixture in the regional championship race in recent years, Clark has steadily rebuilt a Madison Southern program that had hit bottom. The Eagles have re-established themselves in the regional conversation, and a win at Harlan County would go a long way toward changing the perception of football program.
“A win would be huge. Harlan County is one of the toughest places to play in the state for anybody. Getting a win there would be big for the program,” Clark said. “I don’t think anybody would have imagined Madison Southern as contender for a region game a few seasons ago.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.