November 9, 2012

Friday night football previews: Area playoff hopefuls need wins

From Sports Staff

— Losing is not an option for the three area football teams that still have a chance to make the state playoffs.

Dalton and Northwest Whitfield must win their Region 7-4A “play-in” games tonight to earn a spot in the 32-team field for the Class 4A state playoffs, while Christian Heritage must win its Region 6-A crossover game tonight and hope for help to get into the top 16 of the Class A private school power rankings. All three host their regular season finales, with Dalton taking on Pickens, Northwest facing Gilmer and Christian Heritage playing King’s Ridge Christian.

Tonight’s other regular season finales for area schools are all at home as well, with Southeast Whitfield facing Cedartown; North Murray against Gordon Central, Coahulla Creek versus Adairsville and Murray County taking on Coosa. All kickoffs are set for 7:30.

For Dalton, which finished second in Sub-region 7B-4A and earned a game against 7A-4A’s third-place team, this could be the culmination of a late-season surge after a 2-3 start to the year that included lopsided losses to Cass and Ridgeland. Starting with a 24-19 win against rival Northwest on Oct. 12, the Cats (6-3) have reeled off four straight wins.

“We kind of had a turnaround after the Ridgeland game,” junior linebacker Lyle Durham said.

However, Dalton has been hit with a bug, not the injury one but the virus type. On Tuesday, Catamounts coach Matt Land said the team had “15 guys out with the flu.” He declined to give names, but said around half are starters.

“Last week we had 12 and this week we had 15,” Land said. “Last week we had five starters that didn’t play. This week we have 15 out and eight of them are starters. So, we’ll see who’s ready on Friday.”

Pickens (5-4) had an opportunity to win its sub-region — with a win against River Ridge and a Cedartown victory against Gilmer — but neither happened, so the Dragons were slotted against the Cats. In Chris Parker’s first year leading the program, he has it one win from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2005. But he noted the contrast between each program’s accomplishments — Parker said Dalton “has won 40 times the region championships that we have.

“They are what we’re trying to build toward,” he said. “Sometimes you have to play those teams and sometimes you have to beat those teams.”

Parker also showed concern for containing Cats running back Kelvis Rhodes, who has 1,271 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore this season.

“You’ve got to get the behind the chains a little bit,” Parker said. “They are really dangerous when they can run and throw.”

Land pointed to the size of Pickens as something Dalton must prepare for.

“I think what stands out to us is they have a very big line, offensively and defensively,” Land said. “On defense, they play assignment football. They aren’t blitzing.”

On offense, Pickens brings a variety of quick-hit passing plays and misdirection running calls, both usually from the shotgun.

“We’re expecting a lot of run plays and pass plays,” Durham said. “So far we’ve been looking at shotgun and stuff like that. We also know they line up in some crazy formations, too.”

Gilmer (7-2) at Northwest (6-3)

Now is when it matters.

For both Gilmer coach Wesley Tankersley and Northwest coach Josh Robinson, tonight’s game is a chance to keep the season going along, and both said their players understand what is at stake.

“We’ve had probably the best back-to-back practices in three weeks, and that is a testament to the urgency of this game,” Robinson said earlier this week. “We have put in a lot of time and a lot of effort, and we don’t want it to end. You hope you carry that on to Friday night.”

Gilmer’s wing-T offense has excelled at becoming more diverse this season. While still a team that runs the ball, the Bobcats have found a very effective passing game behind quarterback Marlen Hensley.

“We try to hang our hat running the ball, but this year we have been able to throw the ball a little bit,” Tankersley said. “We have thrown for 1,400 yards passing with 18 touchdowns, but that has been off of our running game. We have been able to set up the run and use it.”

That duality concerns Robinson.

“That is the thing you notice is they pound the ball at you and then they will hit you deep,” Robinson said. “They have made some plays in the passing game because they have been able to run it so effectively. That is an issue that we have to address. That is our biggest fear. We have to stop the run, but we have to do it in a disciplined way.”

By the end of last season, the Bruins were old hands at defending against the wing-T because they faced it five times. But tonight will be the first time this season Northwest has had to defend against the misdirection offense.

“It is reading keys and being disciplined with your eyes, and we have played it a lot in the past,” Robinson said, “but it has been a while since we have seen it, and you hope the kids are ready for it.”

Northwest will counter with a spread offense keyed by quarterback Silas Ledford, who is nine yards shy of reaching the 2,000-yard mark for the season. Ledford has thrown for 20 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.

The rushing game has progressed nicely for the Bruins as well. Senior running back Chris Tinson has gone over the 100-yard mark the past two games and has 643 yards and seven touchdowns since taking over the starting role in the third game.

“We know that you can’t score every time you touch the ball, but you have to manage the game with our offense,” Robinson said. “If they control the clock, that limits the offensive possessions you have, and you have to give the defense a chance to rest. We have to be able to run the ball and pass the ball effectively.”

King’s Ridge Christian (4-5) at Christian Heritage (5-4)

A win might not secure a spot in the state playoffs, but a loss certainly will not.

The only thing the Lions can do is win and hope for the best elsewhere as they aim to finish in the top 16 of the GHSA’s Class A private school power rankings.

Christian Heritage coach Preston Poag simply said, “I like the chances if we win; I really do,” and summed up what needs to happen around the region for the Lions to have a shot at playing past today.

“We just need Darlington to win (against Mt. Pisgah Christian) and Trion to win (against Whitefield Academy),” he said. “Mt. Pisgah and Whitefield Academy, those two are ahead of us.”

Christian Heritage is 18th with a 10.13 rating. Our Lady of Mercy (17th; 10.42), Whitefield Academy (16th; 10.46) and Mt. Pisgah Christian (15th; 10.59) are ahead of the Lions. But Poag had a message for his team early this week as the Lions prepared for their next — and possibly last — foe.

“I told them, ‘We just have to worry about (winning). That will take care of itself if we win,’” Poag said. “You can’t get too concerned about that. I’m just looking for us to play the best game of the year.”

King’s Ridge Christian, an Alpharetta school, finished fifth in Sub-region 6B-A after losing five of past last six games.

“They’re sort of like our offense,” Poag said. “They are balanced and do a little bit of both. They play three different quarterbacks. They each do something different. One throws the ball better and the others do more running.”

Going against so many looks could cause the Lions problems, especially with only a week to prepare.

“The biggest thing in high school is you have a limited amount of time you practice,” Poag said. “A lot of different sets and formations, it takes a while (to prepare) for that.”

King’s Ridge Christian coach Jeff Pickren is leading the program in its third season in the GHSA. The Patriots, who have an 8.54 power rating and are ranked 22nd, are all but eliminated from playoff contention, Pickren said, but still want to win and finish at .500 for the year.

“As far as power ratings go, I think we’re pretty much out of it,” he said. “Mathematically, I don’t see us getting into the playoffs.

“We better be ready or Christian Heritage will run us off the field.”

Pickren agreed with Poag about their offensive similarities. Both teams use the I formation a lot, although the Patriots aren’t as balanced as the Lions, who have tallied 1,504 yards through the air and 1,341 on the ground this season.

“I think they throw the ball more than us,” Pickren said. “I think it’s going to be a very good football game. I just wish both teams had more games to play for.”

Adairsville (6-3, 4-2) at Coahulla Creek (2-7, 1-5)

Adairsville’s Tigers will be the No. 2 seed in Region 5-3A if they beat the Colts in Varnell tonight, but a loss could put their postseason hopes in jeopardy. Adairsville will miss the playoffs entirely if it loses to Coahulla Creek and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold and Gordon Central all win.

But Colts coach Jared Hamlin isn’t concerned with playoff scenarios as much as he is with his team finishing strong as it heads into the offseason after the school’s first year against varsity competition.

“We need to finish this season off strong and continue to get better,” Hamlin said. “There have been a lot of experiences that we have had this year that none of us — players or coaches — have seen before. It is a brand new situation, and I think as players we will see some of the little things they know they need to get better at, and as coaches the adjustments we have had to make being in a new situations.

“We have to work on things you might have taken for granted when you are building a new program. It is a learning experience and to learn, we have to stop making some of the same mistakes.”

It has been those little mistakes, Hamlin said, that have been the difference in a winning season and the possibility of competing for the state playoffs.

“In three or four of the last five games, it has really been about four or five plays that have been the difference in the entire game,” Hamlin said. “When we have the opportunities, we need to pounce on them. We had several opportunities in the first half against North Murray that we didn’t take advantage of. I am looking for us to get better at taking advantage of the opportunities when we have them.”

Adairsville put itself in position for a home playoff game by scoring three touchdowns — all by quarterback Marcus Childers — in the second half of last week’s win over Gordon Central.

Coosa (3-6, 3-3) at Murray County (0-9, 0-6)

Eleven Murray County seniors will put on the pads as Indians for the final time tonight, and their coach would love nothing more to see them finish their high school football careers with a victory in the Region 7-2A matchup.

It’s been a while since that has happened at Murray County, though. The Indians picked up two wins last season because of forfeits by Dalton and Southeast Whitfield for using an ineligible players in their victories against Murray County, but the last on-field win for the school came on Oct. 1, 2010, a 20-13 overtime victory against Pickens at Murray Field. Other than that, the Indians have just three victories in four years.

But Hammond speaks highly of his senior class.

“It’s been a pleasure to be around them and be part of their lives,” Murray County coach John Hammond said. “You want to go out on a winning note. If you can’t go out on a winning note, you want to go out on a good note as far as effort. We really want to try to send these seniors off with a win.”

One of those seniors is Brady Todd, who is second on the team in rushing with 298 yards and two touchdowns after playing both quarterback and running back this year. His versatility will be missed on defense as well — his six tackles for a loss lead the team.

The Indians will do their best to keep the Eagles out of the playoff picture. With a win and a victory by Model against Dade County, Coosa can earn the region’s fourth seed for state.

However, Coosa coach Chad Perry knows that winning is the only thing in his team’s control.

“Our main thing for us is to just take care of ourselves and we’ve tried to prepare ourselves all week,” Perry said. “Being a last game of the season approach for them ...  at their home field, and with them having seniors, they’re going to be tough to handle.”

Gordon Central (7-2, 4-2) at North Murray (5-4, 2-4)

North Murray was eliminated from contention for the state playoffs two weeks ago, but there is still motivation for the Mountaineers tonight as they face Gordon Central in a Region 5-3A matchup.

By upsetting Gordon Central, the Mountaineers would achieve the school’s first winning season in its three years of varsity football — they went just 1-19 the first two seasons.

It’s also senior night for North Murray, with 23 players wearing black and gold for the final time. The senior-dominated backfield of quarterback Brady Swilling, fullback Christian Bukle and tailback Jacob Mays has been instrumental in helping the Mountaineers average 35 points per game this season.

“We have some great kids in that senior class,” first-year coach David Gann said. “It would be great for them to go out with a win.”

Gordon Central can lock up one of the region’s four berths in the state playoffs with a victory — only Cartersville as the No. 1 seed is settled for the league — and that will only add to the challenge for the Mountaineers in their bid to end on an upswing.

“In my opinion, they’re the most athletic team that we’ve played,” Gann said. “On offense, they have some outstanding playmakers. Yet their strength is in their defensive line. They have three or four three-year starters up front.”

One thing the two teams have in common is that each fell from the unbeaten ranks with a loss to Cartersville.

With the Mountaineers 3-0 entering their Sept. 21 home game against the Purple Hurricanes, North Murray led 14-6 in the third quarter before Cartersville’s big plays proved too much in a 40-22 loss. Gordon Central was 6-0 before losing 41-19 to Cartersville on Oct. 19.

A trio of seniors are the offensive playmakers for the Warriors — quarterback M.J. Reynolds’ top targets are wide receiver Tyshaun Clemmons and tight end D.J. Prather. Key defenders include tackle Larons Winston and ends Eric Smith and Jacob Mitchell, the leaders of a group that has posted three shutouts while allowing an average of 16 points per game.

North Murray’s defense, which has yielded a 30-point average, will be challenged by a Gordon Central offense that averages 37 points.

Cedartown (5-4) at Southeast (2-7)

Southeast has one primary goal tonight: Win a Region 7-4A crossover game against Cedartown to end their season on a positive note.

How do the Raiders pull that off?

Stop Cedartown running back Nick Chubb.

Anyone who knows that name knows it’s not going to be an easy task.

Chubb, a 5-foot-11-inch, 198-pound junior, has run hog wild all season, piling up 2,449 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns. A big chunk of that production — 366 yards and seven touchdowns — came against the Raiders in the Bulldogs’ 47-27 victory on Sept. 28.

Only Gilmer has been able to slow Chubb, holding the state’s leading rusher to 77 yards, a whopping 195.1 below his per-game average.

“They just whipped us,” Cedartown coach Scott Hendrix said. “He’s not Superman. Gilmer wasn’t worried about us throwing the football. Gilmer was worried about stopping Nick.”

Raiders coach Sean Gray believes his defense is playing more physical football than in September, and that might prove beneficial to staying in the game this time around.

“I told our guys early in the season they were playing soft,” Gray said. “We weren’t very physical and weren’t playing hard. Once they learned how to play hard, they became more physical. Now, we’re a better football team.”

However, the Raiders may not be as healthy as they were two months ago.

Already ailing, junior standout Rhett Harper was hurt in the first quarter of a 14-10 loss to rival Dalton last week. Harper, who starts at receiver but has played at quarterback the past two games because of an injury to starting quarterback Blake Foster, was injured himself while on defense against the Cats. He’s still hobbled.

Foster is also banged up, but will play, while linebacker Abram Stanley — who led the Raiders with 16 tackles against Dalton but suffered a shoulder injury — is questionable.

Written by The Daily Citizen sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming, Dave Gordon and Doug Hawley.