RUTLEDGE – There was a time when teams looked at Sullivan Central on their schedule and could pretty much count the Cougars as a sure win. Because of Central’s improvement this year, that is no longer the case.

Sullivan Central snapped a 36-game losing streak last year and, even though they enter Friday’s game against Grainger with a 2-5 overall record, they have been competitive in other games as they dropped an eight-point decision to Sullivan North in the season opener and a nine-point game one week later to Volunteer. The Cougars are still very much in the playoff picture.

“Central is much improved. They have a lot of experienced guys who have played for two or three years and you can tell by watching the film they know their system and just go out and play,” Grainger head coach Chad Tate said of this week’s opponent. Tate said the game is an important one as it carries a great deal of post-season possibilities for the winner. “They are in the same position we are as they are fighting for the playoffs. Central controls their destiny with the way the conference schedule lines up so this is big game for us and for them.”

Tate said the tale of the tape shows how much the Cougars have improved. “Their coaches have done a good job and their players believe in what they are doing. That’s evident on film. They are a confident team with some really good athletes. The quarterback does a good job throwing it as well as running it and they also have a great running back. There are also two or three wide receivers who can go up and get it.”

The Cougars are coming off a 28-14 win over cross-county foe Sullivan East. Quarterback Will Nottingham was 12-of-18 for 174 yards through the air and ran 13 times for 50 yards so once again, the Grizzlies’ defense will have to prepare to take on a dual-threat signal-caller. Nottingham’s favorite receiver is Bryson Crabtree who caught three touchdowns against Sullivan East. Joey Byrd ran for 102 yards on 15 carries as the Cougars rolled up 335 yards of total offense.

Nottingham presents a problem because of his mobility according to Tate. “This is three weeks in a row where we have had to face a dual threat quarterback, and we have had to prepare for that. Nottingham is right there with all those guys and can certainly win a football game for you.”

The Grainger defense hasn’t been phased by opposing quarterbacks in the last two games as they are only 13-of-27 for 105 yards and the Grizzlies’ defense has recorded an interception, three sacks and 15 quarterback hurries.

It’s not just pressure on the quarterback that has sparked the Grizzlies’ defense in the last two contests. Grainger has allowed only an average of 161 total yards in wins over Sullivan East and Chuckey Doak and Tate attributes that to the fact his young team has grown older with each passing game. “Defensively, we have just gotten better every day and we knew we would. We were playing so many inexperienced guys early in the season, especially in the secondary and the defensive line. As those position guys have gotten better, the defense as a whole has gotten better so I think you can really see that improvement right now. There is nothing like game experience.”

The Grizzlies turned in their best performance of the season as they scored early and often to take control of last Friday’s 43-6 victory over Chuckey-Doak. Grainger found the end zone on each of their first six possessions and rolled up 436 yards of total offense. Dawson Holt rushed for 276 yards, three touchdowns and two, two-point conversions to lead the Grainger offense. Defensively, the Grizzlies held the Black Knights to only 202 yards of total offense only one week after they compiled big-time numbers against Unicoi County.

The series between the two teams has been a one-sided affair as the Grizzlies have won all four of the previous contests by a combined average score of 48-12. Grainger won last year’s tilt at The Den 48-20 behind 222 total yards and four touchdowns by former Grizzlies’ standout Preston Owens.

Kickoff between the Cougars and Grizzlies is set for 7:30 p.m. in Blountville.