Northwest Whitfield High School football coach Josh Robinson hopes each game brings improvement from the last.
Can game No. 4 be better than game No. 3 for the Bruins?
River Ridge sure hopes not.
The Bruins (3-0) host the Knights (1-3) tonight in a matchup of Region 7-4A teams from different sub-regions. Both sub-regions begin their schedules next week — River Ridge is in 7A-4A, Northwest is in 7B-4A — so this is their last chance to grab momentum on the field before the games that will shape their postseason destiny.
In other games involving local teams tonight, Christian Heritage is at Mount Zion-Carroll, Coahulla Creek is at Cartersville, Dalton is at Cass, Murray County hosts Chattooga, North Murray welcomes Sonora-ville and Southeast Whitfield takes on visiting Cedartown. All kickoffs are at 7:30 p.m.
While league play is a week away, Robinson sees value in tonight’s game — just as he does every week.
“You can say it doesn’t matter but that isn’t totally true,” Robinson said. “You want to build momentum and confidence in your kids. You shouldn’t play as good a game No. 5 as you do in game No. 10, but it should be closer.”
Last week at Cass, the Bruins played about as perfect a first quarter as they could and were up 31-0 during the second period. But their halftime lead was 38-21 and they had trouble pulling away against the Col-onels, although they ultimately won 52-35. Likewise, Northwest benefited from seven turnovers but gave up five. Not surprisingly, Robinson found his team’s consistency lacking.
River Ridge is consistent in at least one regard. For the second straight season, the Knights have started 1-3.
They lost to Northwest last season before winning four straight in sub-region play to grab a spot in the region championship game against Ridgeland.
“They seem to be a team that grows as the season goes on,” Robinson said.
River Ridge earned its first victory of the season last week against struggling LaFay-ette, which has been outscored 125-35.
Robinson said the Knights’ offense is quite basic, despite a lot of pre-snap movement and formation shifts.
“It’s running the ball straight ahead,” he said. “For old-time football lovers, it’s kind of a wishbone-esque team. ... Really they are just doing all of that to run right at you. Defensively, they showed several different things. They did a 3-3 stack against LaFay-ette’s spread. I expect them to do something similar against us.
“It’s a defense that has come around more to neutralize the spread.”
River Ridge coach Robert Braught said his team practices “fast” each day, and it will help the Knights as try to defend the fast tempo style of Northwest, which runs a no-huddle spread offense and plays in hurry-up mode most of the time.
Even if that’s an advantage some teams might not have against Northwest, Braught the Knights still must avoid “turnovers and mental letdowns” to have a chance to win because he believes the Bruins have too much talent to let opponents away with such mistakes.
“All of the players jump out at you,” he said. “Coach Robinson and his staff have done a great job putting the right players in the correct positions.”
Christian Heritage (3-1) at Mount Zion (1-2)
Second-year Mount Zion coach Keith Holloway, who last season guided the Eagles to their first winning record in 16 years, understands what must happen to get past once-beaten Christian Heritage in the Sub-region 6A-A opener for both teams.
“Simple,” he said. “Keep the ball away from them. Last year was an offensive game. We ran it and they threw it.”
Defense matters this time.
Holloway is aware the Lions return 10 offensive starters and possess the best passing attack the Eagles will see 2013.
“Bar none,” he said.
Christian Heritage, the sub-region’s highest-scoring team, averages 36.7 points. Thirty-five of the 44 points allowed came in a season-opening loss to Model (3-1) and since then the Lions have posted two shutouts and given up just nine points.
If the Lions continue to play that way, the Eagles will be challenged to get yardage consistently.
“The whole year we’ve played good defense,” Poag said. “Last week, Fellowship had a big (6-foot-5-inch) quarterback that had been playing good. We put a lot of pressure on him and got him out of rhythm. Against Model, our defense gave them two touchdowns.”
Poag watched teams try to punish the Lions with persistent ground games in 2013, basically attempting to “run the ball down our throats.”
These Lions are bigger, stronger and more experienced. Early season injuries forced freshmen on to the field, but a solid linebacker corps — Matt Cook, Austin Lowe and Evan Townsend — anchor the unit and all the defenders are healthy.
Coahulla Creek (1-3, 0-1) at Cartersville (4-0, 1-0)
Cartersville lost several key players from last year’s Class 3A state semifinalist squad, which lost to eventual champion Buford.
The Purple Hurricanes, though, just keep on winning.
Because of talented returning starters such as quarterback Brooks Barden — who leads an offense averaging 43 points per game — Cartersville’s less experienced players have had time to grow into their new roles. The Purple Hurricanes, who are ranked No. 2 in this week’s Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class 3A poll, started their Region 5-3A schedule last week by beating visiting North Murray 55-15.
“I think we are getting better each week,” said Cartersville coach Frank Barden, who is Brooks’ father. “They have come to work Monday through Thursday and are letting Friday night take care of itself. They are executing our game plan, and we are improving.
“We lost some very good senior leaders from last year, and it has had to take a few games to develop that unity and chemistry. That is the fun thing to have watched take place.”
Barden has thrown for 853 yards with 12 touchdowns this season. Against North Murray, he finished with 312 yards and four touchdowns passing while completing 14 of 16 attempts. He also rushed for two more touchdowns.
“We are excited to get to play one of the best teams in the state of Georgia,” Coahulla Creek coach Jared Hamlin said. “This is a great opportunity for our kids to be part of something big. They are as good a team as I have seen from top to bottom.”
The timing of facing the Purple Hurricanes couldn’t be much worse for the Colts, who lost 41-16 to previously winless Sonoraville in the Region 5-3A opener for both teams last week.
“Last week was tough. We just didn’t play very well and we didn’t coach very well,” Hamlin said. “It was a very disappointing loss. This week, we will become a better football team.”
Dalton (1-2) at Cass (2-2)
Cass handed the Catamounts a 35-7 beating last season in Dalton, but Cats coach Matt Land thinks this year’s Colonels could be even better.
Dalton heads to Cartersville with chance to improve to 2-2 before sub-region play begins next week.
Last season’s loss to Cass at Harmon Field was the Cats’ worst margin of defeat since a 51-13 loss to Statesboro in the 2001 Class 4A state championship game. Catamounts linebacker Lyle Durham summed up the rout.
“It was embarrassing, especially being on Harmon Field and all,” he said. “We’re going to have to work hard this week.”
However, Brandon Etheridge, Cass’ quarterback last season, was one of seven people arrested this summer in Bartow County when the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force seized roughly 7 ounces of the illegal narcotic “molly,” according to a report from The Daily Tribune-News.
This season, Cass is relying on freshman Trevor Lowe at quarterback.
“That team is a completely different team than last year,” Land said. “It was Brandon Etheridge and that’s all it had to be. This year the pressure is not on the quarterback to score the points. It’s distributed across five or six people. To me, I see a potentially more dangerous team because you only had one guy to worry about and everything hinged on him.”
Dalton lost its first two games this season but didn’t have star running back Kelvis Rhodes for either one. Rhodes returned last week and scored four touchdowns in a 31-0 rout of Gilmer.
Chattooga (0-4, 0-1) at Murray County (1-3, 0-1)
Victories have been so rare the past few years at Murray County, it’s little surprise that they have also rarely come early in the season.
With a triumph tonight, Murray County can put two in the win column for the first time in eight years before the calendar turns to October.
In 2005, under former longtime coach Bill Napier, Murray County was 3-3 by October — the season kicked off on Aug. 19 that year — on its way to a 7-4 finish. It was the last season Murray County finished with a wining record and the last time the program reached the state playoffs, losing at Rockdale County in the opening round of the Class 4A bracket.
To jump into two-win territory tonight, first-year coach Chad Brewer’s team will have to execute its own offense and limit big plays, two things that have eluded Murray County so far this season. Murray County broke a long losing streak when it won 14-12 at Gordon Central on Sept. 13, but that is contrasted with defeats at the hands of Coahulla Creek, 35-9, Christian Heritage, 51-0, and Armuchee, 41-0.
The latter was winless when it rolled in the Region 7-2A opener for both teams last week at Murray Field. Murray County gets another chance at a region win tonight, and it would be the team’s first league victory since 2010.
“We can’t give up big plays,” Brewer said. “We have got to make people drive the football. We’ve been giving up way too many of those (plays of 20 or more yards). But our players are still working hard. I haven’t seen any less fight in any of my players. We’ve got guys improving each game, so I’m very pleased with that.”
Murray County will look to limit the arm and legs of Chattooga freshman quarterback Isaac Foster. In a 15-7 loss to Model last week, he completed 6 of 11 passes — one for a touchdown — for 50 yards, while also rushing for 64 yards on 19 carries.
Chattooga’s losses have come to teams with a combined record of 11-4.
Sonoraville (1-3, 1-0) at North Murray (1-3, 0-1)
To earn its first Region 5-3A victory of the season, North Murray needs it defense to limit Sonoraville’s top two offensive threats — at least.
Phoenix running back Andrew Slaton and quarterback Cody Long caught North Murray coach David Gann’s attention when he re-viewed video of Sonoraville over the weekend.
“The running back is very dangerous,” Gann said. “He’s extremely fast and can hurt you any time he touches the ball. The quarterback didn’t throw much, but he didn’t have to because he relies heavily on his legs. It’s scary playing a group like that.”
Long, a sophomore who began the season in a backup role, rushed for 149 yards and five touchdowns on runs of 21, 11, 8, 18 and 4 yards at Coahulla Creek last week. Slaton, a junior and the reigning 100-meter dash state champion in Class 3A, capped Sonoraville’s scoring with a 47-yard burst.
The Phoenix went back to basics against the Colts and the strategy worked as they spoiled homecoming for the Colts.
“We trimmed our playbook, modified our offense,” Phoenix coach Roger Gentry said. “We were doing too much. We want to run six plays and get good at them. I’m hoping our offense has caught a little momentum.”
In its first two games, Sonoraville scored 16 points, but almost tripled that output while routing the Colts.
“We have to contain both of those guys,” Gann said. “They’ve gone to a sprint-type look, so we have to play assignment football and tackle the running back and quarterback.”
Cedartown (4-0) at Southeast (2-1)
Cedartown’s Nick Chubb had a phenomenal junior season in 2012, when he established himself as the state’s top college prospect at running back.
Southeast got to see him up close twice, and the results were in the Bulldogs’ favor both times.
In a 47-27 win over the visiting Raiders on Sept. 28, Chubb rushed for 366 yards on 36 carries, including seven touchdowns. Southeast did a better job of containing Chubb in a 19-17 loss when Cedartown visited the Raiders in the final game of the regular season, but Chubb still scored three times while rushing for 237 yards.
Chubb, who has verbally committed to Georgia, is averaging 247.3 yards per game this season.
Cedartown comes into the game as the No. 9-ranked team in Class 4A. Coach Scott Hendrix knew he had to stop teams from focusing solely on Chubb, and quarterback Harrison Bennett has made that possible. Last season, the Bulldogs completed 19 percent of their passes for a little more than 400 yards. This year, Bennett has completed 50 percent of his passes and is just under 400 yards in four games.
“We tried to diversify our offense as much as we could last year, but our quarterback play wasn’t very effective in the passing game,” Hendrix said. “We didn’t want to have to give the ball to Nick 30 times a game. You sort of have to do what your players allow you to do.”
Gray said he thinks his defense is up to the challenge of Chubb after having an off week to prepare following Southeast’s 18-6 loss at Gilmer on Sept. 13.
“The defense has played outstanding so far this year,” Gray said. “If you go back over the last six games and include the scrimmage, we have held every team below 20 points. They came to work after the loss. The thing is that we aren’t going to overcome 30 years of losing without having to fight for it. But we are still looking for that big win.”
— Compiled by sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming and Dave Gordon. The Georgia High School Football Historians Association’s website (ghsfha.org) was used as a reference for some scores and win-loss records.