Both Midland Valley and Aiken High made significant strides last week, showing vast improvements from their first game of the football season to the second. The big difference is the Mustangs (1-1) were able to break through for a win while the Hornets (0-2) couldn’t generate enough offense to get the first victory of the Brian Neal era.


“Any win is a good win,” Midland Valley head coach Rick Knight said of his team’s 38-32 triumph over Allendale-Fairfax.


Neal, in his first season as Aiken’s head coach, held a similar sentiment, looking forward to tonight’s game at L.L. Willis Stadium in Graniteville.


“Any win right now would be nice, and I think we’re making strides toward that. We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Neal, who added it won’t be easy breaking through against the Mustangs. “Midland Valley’s going to be tough. They’ve got an athletic quarterback and an athletic running back, and that 3-5 defense has been creating problems for us. We’ve got a long way to go; we’ve just got to keep making steps in the right direction.”


To get to that point, Aiken will need more points. The Hornets have been limited to seven points in two games and will be without leading rusher D’Andre Pope for the foreseeable future. Pope tore his ACL in last week’s 21-0 loss to Beaufort.


“Pope was kind of our anchor running the football,” Neal said of Pope, who hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning at some point. “He had (58 yards) Friday night before he got hurt, was running the ball pretty well. Seemed like when he went out, our ground game kind of stalled, so that’s very important.”


Neal said that Terrell Lewis will take Pope’s spot in the lineup. Lewis has missed the first two games because of a shoulder injury and is returning just in time. Dramel Coleman also figures to play a big role on both sides of the ball.


Their success will be a result of the play of the offensive line. Neal has been preaching all week for improvement from the group up front and praised them for their effort in practice.


Another player who could pick up the slack is Nakeem Spann, one of the wings in the Hornets’ Wing-T formation. An All-Aiken Standard second-team running back in 2012, Spann has yet to be a factor this season – gaining just 52 yards on 14 carries. In spite of his lack of production to date, Knight isn’t expecting anything less than Spann’s best.


“They’ve got Spann, and we know what kind of athlete he is,” Knight warned, refusing to take the Hornets lightly. It makes sense since they’ve beaten the Mustangs 10 consecutive times in the series – including a 41-20 triumph last season. “To me, they’re Aiken. They play hard, and the kids attack. Aiken is going to pound you, going to pound you, going to pound you, and we’ve got to learn to play every play.” Midland Valley did a much better job of that against Allendale-Fairfax but was hurt by turnovers. Quarterback Daniel Carr has thrown five interceptions this season, and the Mustangs can’t afford to give the ball away.


They overcame the mistakes last week because Carr and his cousin Dré Carr, the team’s top running back, were close to unstoppable on the ground. They combined for 310 yards and four touchdowns. Knight figures to call their numbers regularly tonight.


“Daniel’s going to throw, Dré’s going to run and Daniel’s going to run,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge for the offensive line, but we’ll do what we do.”


Neal is wary of letting Daniel Carr break loose, saying, “(we’re going to try) to keep him in the pocket, try to eliminate him creating big plays. I think that’s when they’re most dangerous sometimes is when he gets back there and kind of creates things on his own, uses his athleticism. Kind of puts you in a bind, secondary-wise, whether you want to come up, whether you want to stay back. So we’ve been working on that.”


Daniel Carr is expected to have Kameron Brown, one of his top targets, back in the lineup. Brown missed last week’s game with an injured MCL, but Knight thinks the receiver will try to take the field tonight. Cornerbacks Quay Madison and Adrian Bembry are expected to play in spite of nagging injuries, and defensive end Justin Rogers is also expected to return from injury.


The news isn’t as good for Justin Mealing, who might not play with an ankle injury, and Ben Padgett, who suffered a broken collar bone.


Padgett is expected to be replaced as the tam’s place kicker and punter by Jaquan McCorkle.


Regardless of who’s available and who isn’t, this figures to be an intense game. The schools aren’t separated by much distance, and there’s a lot of familiarity between players and coaches.


“It’s Aiken,” Knight said. “We want to beat Aiken; the kids haven’t beat them in a while. It would mean a great deal to our kids to knock them off.”


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 THREE


Who: Aiken (0-2) at Midland Valley (1-1)


When: 7:30 p.m.


Where: L.L. Willis Stadium, Graniteville


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


Last Year’s Result: Aiken defeated Midland Valley 41-20