October 11, 2013

Past meets present

When Bruins face Cats, history can’t be ignored

The Daily Citizen

— Five high school football teams have felt quite ill after playing Northwest Whitfield this season.

History says Dalton has the right medicine.

Northwest’s Bruins and Dalton’s Catamounts will tangle for the 33rd time in the intracounty rivalry when they meet tonight at 7:30 at Bruin Stadium in Tunnel Hill. Northwest is 5-0 this season, but Dalton has won three straight games since an 0-2 start, leads the all-time series with the Bruins 27-5 and has won the past six meetings.

There’s more history that could build the Cats’ confidence as well. In 2006 and 2007, the Bruins started the season with six straight wins. In both years, the Cats were the brick wall that halted Northwest’s perfect run.

Beyond bragging rights, the game is also key to each team’s quest for the Region 7-4A title. Dalton and Northwest are 1-0 in Sub-region 7B-4A play and enter tonight’s game sharing the top spot in the sub-region standings with Southeast Whitfield.

In other games tonight involving area teams, Christian Heritage hosts Darlington in an important Sub-region 6A-A clash, Murray County visits Model in a Region 7-2A game and Southeast travels to Ridgeland for another 7B-4A matchup. A 7 p.m. kickoff is scheduled at Model, where it’s homecoming, but all other games will kick off at 7:30.

As the Bruins try to snap their losing streak to Dalton, they enter averaging 43.6 points per game and allowing an average of 17.8 points per contest this season. Those numbers, strengthened by last week’s 49-7 rout of sub-region foe Heritage-Catoosa, have impressed Dalton coach Matt Land.

“Clearly, Northwest is the front-runner for this,” Land said. “... This may be the best team Northwest has ever had. From what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen on film, they have skill, speed, size, experience and a great quarterback.”

Despite the historic edge for the Cats — who won last year’s game when they entered 2-3 and Northwest was 4-1 — Land is certain the Bruins should be favored.

“Absolutely,” Land said. “You’re playing in their home stadium. They are 5-0. They are scoring a lot of points.”

Northwest coach Josh Robinson, you have the floor to counter.

“I have probably two answers to that,” he said. “No. 1, when Northwest and Dalton play, even when one team is a lot better than the other one, the score is going to be close. Is there a true favorite? I don’t really buy into that. The flip side is that each year is a new year and we have to treat it that way. There will be a lot of talk about our record (this year) and their record in the past against us, but honestly neither of those things matter coming into this game.”

Dalton started the season with a 33-27 triple-overtime loss to Ringgold and a 17-2 loss to Calhoun. The Cats were without junior running back Kelvis Rhodes in both games as he recovered from a shoulder injury. He returned for a four-touchdown, 173-yard rushing performance in a 31-0 victory against Gilmer on Sept. 20. That started Dalton’s current winning streak, and Rhodes has scored eight touchdowns — one was a catch — while rushing for 341 yards on 47 carries, a 7.3-yards-per-carry average, during that span.

Stopping Rhodes and getting the ball back to the offense will be important for Northwest’s defense.

“Our defense gets a lot of turnovers and gets three-and-outs,” Bruins junior quarterback Caleb Shiflett said. “That helps us get back in the game. I think if we can stop Kelvis Rhodes, then we’ll have a pretty good chance.”

As for Northwest’s offense, senior running back Jacob Webb has been heavily leaned on to give balance to the Bruins’ spread attack. He has rushed 61 times for 479 yards (7.8 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. Shiflett has thrown for 974 yards — nearly 200 yards per game — and 12 touchdowns, with five each in the past two games.

The Bruins’ fast-paced, no-huddle offense has enjoyed success this year in its second season under coordinator David Crane. Do the Cats have a way to counter?

Land calls it the Cats’ “no-huddle defense,” something Dalton coaches use to offset no-huddle offenses.

“I think our coaches have done a great job adjusting us to these no-huddle offenses,” he said. “Northwest isn’t the first we’ve faced that uses that type of offense and won’t be the last.”

Either way, this game will have an impact on the sub-region race. The winner is, at worst, tied for first place.

Four weeks from tonight, the sub-region champion will face the Sub-region 7A-4A champion for the Region 7-4A title.

“Nobody knows what will happen, but (the winner) could go on to the championship,” Dalton senior linebacker Devonte Davis said. “I think (tonight) will be the game of the year.”

Darlington (4-1, 2-0) at Christian Heritage (5-1, 2-0)

Control of the Sub-region 6A-A race will be on the line tonight as the Tigers visit the Lions in a battle of teams near the top of the Georgia High School Association’s Class A private school power ratings.

Both teams are unbeaten in sub-region play, and Darlington is No. 2 in the latest power ratings, while Christian Heritage is No. 6. The top 16 teams in the final power ratings make the state playoffs, but the region champions are guaranteed the highest seeds and home-field advantage in the opening round of state.

The road to a potential region title will be a lot smoother for the team that comes out on top tonight — but Christian Heritage coach Preston Poag is trying to keep his Lions, who have won five straight games, from feeling too much pressure.

“You don’t want to build up a game so much that your team plays tight,” Poag said. “We just have to play hard-nosed defense, take care of the ball and not give up the big play in special teams. Darlington is a fundamentally sound team. They are not flashy, but they are good. I have watched a lot of film on them and I have yet to see them turn the ball over. It is going to be the type of game where one or two little mistakes are going to be the difference in a win or a loss.”

The Tigers, who are ranked 10th in this week’s Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class A poll, beat the Lions 19-10 last season, with Christian Heritage failing to capitalize on four trips into the red zone. But scoring hasn’t been a problem for the team this year. The Lions’ lowest output of the season was 27 points in a win over Coahulla Creek, and the passing game behind quarterback Trevor Brown is explosive.

Brown has passed for 1,430 yards and 18 touchdowns with the majority of those yards and scores going to Nich Bartley. Bartley has hauled in 10 touchdowns, and according to the Georgia High School Football Daily newsletter, he leads the entire state in receiving yards with 753.

“Nich, as well as the other receivers they have, run precise routes, and Brown does an outstanding job of getting the ball to them,” Darlington coach Tommy Atha said. “We just have to make sure we don’t give up anything easy. There is no doubt that they have an outstanding football team. They are playing really well. They are good up front, and when you combine that with the skill players that makes it pretty tough.”

Darlington will counter with an offense that has scored 31 or more points in each of the Tigers’ four wins. The lone loss for the Tigers was 36-0 to Cartersville — and that was the lowest offensive output this season for the Purple Hurricanes, who are ranked second in Class 3A.

Christian Heritage will counter with a defense that has recorded three shutouts this season. The key for the Lions on defense, Poag said, will be to get the Darlington offense off of the field — and then to make sure Christian Heritage’s offense produces.

“We played them last year, and what I remember is they got the ball and they ate that clock up,” Poag said. “You only get so many chances on offense, so you have to take advantage of all of the opportunities. They run the same type plays over and over and a lot of the same players. It means a lot to do something when you have the ball.”

Murray County (1-4, 0-2) at Model (4-1, 2-0)

Numbers don’t lie.

Model, which shares the Region 7-2A lead with perennial state title contender Calhoun, is scoring 29 points per game while giving up just 11.

Murray County is at the other end of the spectrum. The Indians are once again struggling to win games and the numerical reason is clear — they’re giving up 39 points a game and scoring seven. No team in the region is scoring fewer points or giving up more.

Those statistics cannot be ignored.

“If you don’t look at the scoreboard when watching them on video, their offense looks pretty good,” Model coach Gordon Powers said. “Look at their schedule and scores, they’re doing things we’re doing — they’re getting a lot of negative yardage and making turnovers.”

Model is better equipped to overcome adversity than Murray County, though, and has already done so. Starting Blue Devils running back Nakyle Watkins blew his knee out the Tuesday before Model’s season opener against Christian Heritage, forcing anterior cruciate ligament surgery. A 1,000-yard rusher in 2012, Model built its offense around him for 2013.

Freshman Chris Dublin has filled in for Watkins, including a 70-yard touchdown run against the Lions. Another freshman, fullback Kyler Eldridge, has replaced another starter lost for the season with a knee injury.

“We had to throw those guys to the fire,” Powers said.

Senior quarterback Cameron O’Neal is healthy and has been the glue holding the offense together.

“Their offense is very athletic, very fast,” Indians coach Chad Brewer said. “Their defense takes pride in getting to the ball and lighting people up.”

Southeast (3-2, 1-0) at Ridgeland (1-4, 0-1)

Southeast has the task of keeping ground with the winner of Dalton and Northwest in the sub-region race, and the Raiders will have to do it on the road. They’ll play their second straight away game following last week’s victory at LaFayette.

Ridgeland is not the same as it was a year ago when it reached the Class 4A state championship, losing to Sandy Creek. Losing several starters has contributed to the Panthers’ struggling start, but they still have enough athletes at the skill positions to disrupt the opposition, something Raiders coach Sean Gray is fully aware of.

“They are a good football team regardless,” Gray said. “They have a lot of athletes and they are physical. We’re going to have to match that. We are going to have to be just as physical as they are. It’s no secret that they are going to run the ball and we’re going to have to stop it. We just have to show up and play hard from beginning to end.”

That complete game is something Gray is still looking for. The start-to-finish sharpness was lacking in the 31-17 win last week against LaFayette, when the Raiders were saved by a second-half rally led by senior quarterback Rhett Harper.

“I didn’t like the fact that we started really slow, but we responded really well after the half,” Gray said. “We challenged our seniors and they responded really well. After that score after the half when (LaFayette) went up 14-3, we scored four consecutive touchdowns and held them to a field goal the rest of the way. It turned out good in the end.”

Gray wants his team to play at the level shown in the second half “all the time.”

“We just assumed we were going to show up and blow them out,” he said.

— Compiled by sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming and Dave Gordon. The Georgia High School Football Historians Association website (ghsfha.org) was used as a resource for some scores and historical information.