This is a big game.


Undefeated Strom Thurmond, one of the best teams year after year, going against undefeated North Augusta – another perennial power. Over the past decade, these teams have established themselves as the premier programs in the Aiken area and among the elite in all of South Carolina. Tonight, they’re going head to head for the first time in four years as the Rebels (4-0) travel to North Augusta to take on the Yellow Jackets (5-0).


“This is a little bigger of a game outside the program, but I’m not going to lie, this is a big game,” North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin said of the game that was circled on many calendars once the schedule was made official. “This is a big deal for the communities.”


The magnitude of the game isn’t lost on his counterpart, Strom Thurmond head coach Lee Sawyer.


“I’m glad we’re playing again. Hopefully we’ll give people their money’s worth,” Sawyer said of the game that has greater significance because it isn’t a regular on the schedule. “The fact that we haven’t played every year adds to it.”


The last time the teams played was in 2009, when the Yellow Jackets scored a 27-16 victory. That game doesn’t have much bearing on tonight’s contest, as the players who participated have moved on. The coaches and much of their staff remains, a major reason why the teams – great back then – have continued to flourish.


Their continued presence and the schemes they operate figure to be critical to tonight’s outcome. North Augusta’s zone read out of the spread formation is one of the top offenses in the state. It has produced 231 points in five games, an average of more than 46 points a contest.


Leading the way is quarterback Trib Reece. The junior leads all area players with 1,048 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. He spreads the ball around to a variety of receivers – including Keyon West (28 catches, 362 yards, 2 TDs), Antuan Andrews (15 catches, 253 yards, 4 TDs), Jaleel Bryant (8 catches, 192 yards, 3 TDs) and Dre Dunbar (9 catches, 179 yards, 4 TDs).


The Jackets are capable of striking quick through the air and have built early leads in all of their games that has saddled opponents with significant deficits. But North Augusta is far from a one-dimensional team. If anything, it’s more dangerous running the ball with both Willie McCloud and Dashawn Barnes sharing carries that can exploit the soft underbelly of opposing defenses. They are adept at hammering the ball inside, through holes opened by one of the best offensive lines in the state, or bouncing outside and stretching the field. They’re both among the top seven rushers in the area and have combined for 142 carries that has gained 985 yards and resulted in 16 touchdowns.


While the offense is lighting up the scoreboard, the defense has gone under the radar. The Jackets have only allowed 36 points on the season and feature three of the area’s top tacklers in Jordan Blocker, Ronald Williams and Kyle Saverance. They’re so prolific, unstoppable and hard to score against, they remind Sawyer of another recent great team.


“They’re like us last year,” he said of his squad that outscored opponents 588-177 on its way to a 12-2 season that culminated in the Class AAA state semifinals. “They score a ridiculous amount of points and give up very few. They’ve got a ton of weapons and are well-coached. They’re going to make you pay for not doing something right. … I tip my hat to North Augusta. They’re as good as I’ve seen.”


The silver lining to facing a behemoth like he’s coached is that Sawyer and his staff have an idea how to try neutralize it. The best course of action is to keep the ball out of North Augusta’s possession and dictate the tempo of the game. In the past, many teams have tried that in vain against Strom Thurmond, Sawyer’s Rebels are equipped with the personnel that might be capable of pulling off the feat.


They’re one of the best running teams in the area and have three primary ball carriers to tote the rock. While Chad Gilchrist (33 carries, 258 yards, 4 TDs) and Delonte Bates (47 carries, 305 yards, 4 TDs) have emerged in their first year of significant action, the centerpiece of the Rebels’ offense is quarterback Jauveer Hammond.


The 2012 All-Aiken Standard first-team signal caller has picked up where he left off last season. In spite of missing some big time players from last season’s roster and playing hurt, Hammond remains one of the most talented and dynamic individuals in the area. He has been both lead back for Strom Thurmond – running the ball 54 times for 433 yards and four touchdowns – and one of the area’s top passers, completing 31 of 49 attempts for 372 yards and two more scores.


“Their quarterback is pretty good,” Pippin joked, sighting versatility as one of Hammond’s greatest skills. “He’ll run you over one play and make a spin move the next. You have to play assignment football against him, or you’re toast.”


In his estimation, Hammond’s leadership has been the his greatest strength in a year where the Rebels are undefeated in spite of losing a dozen starters from a season ago.


“Being that one guy back is so vital. He’s a leader, and the younger guys look up to him,” Sawyer said of the player who never panics. “He’s not going to allow that to happen. He’s cool, and he’s a heck of a playmaker.”


While Hammond has been the driving force keeping the Rebels’ offense clicking, their defense isn’t at the astoundingly high level it inhabited a year ago. It has struggled at times this year and has been vulnerable to the run. The Rebels’ ability to get off the field on defense and keep the Jackets from racking up points against their 3-5 front will be the difference in the game. They can bend, but they can’t afford to break to keep pace.


Pippin said he’s a fan of the Strom Thurmond program and hopes they have great success. Just not tonight.


“I want Strom Thurmond to win every game it plays but this week. They have good kids, great coaches and I have a lot of respect for them,” said Pippin, who’s aware of the attention being paid to this showdown but is more preoccupied with the region slate set to start in North Augusta’s next game. “We can’t win this and be, ‘That’s it.’ In the state, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. It’s big, and the atmosphere is going to be great, but we’ve got to keep things in perspective. It’s a long season.”


Sawyer isn’t overemphasizing this game either. He’s looking forward to see how his team deals with the challenges it presents.


“We’ll just battle for 48 minutes regardless of the situation. I’m anxious to see how we handle it,” he said. “There’s two undefeated teams playing in front of thousands and thousands of people.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


Week Five


Who: Strom Thurmond (4-0) at North Augusta (5-0)


Where: Jackets Stadium, North Augusta


When: 7:30 p.m.


Last time they met: North Augusta defeated Strom Thurmond 27-16 in 2009


TV: ASTV, Atlantic Broadband Channel 95, and My12 starting at 7 p.m.