Heading into this week’s Region 7-4A championship game with Gilmer High School, the Dalton’s football team’s defense is playing with peak efficiency, and it was on full display Friday night at Harmon Field as the Catamounts throttled Southeast Whitfield 42-0.
It was the third shutout in the last four games for Dalton and the fifth of the season.
“We like the taste of Moon Pies,” Dalton linebacker Lyle Durham said of the team’s tradition of having Moon Pies at a Monday practice after a shutout. “Our coaches put us in really good positions. They do so much for us. They study their butts off and put us in position. We just have to make the plays.”
Dalton’s win was part of a full slate of games in the penultimate week of the regular season schedule.
In other games across the area, Northwest Whitfield beat LaFayette 77-0, North Murray topped Coahulla Creek 56-14, Murray County fell 49-0 to Pepperell and Christian Heritage beat Trion 24-20.
Dalton’s defense has definitely been the strength of the team throughout the year. With the exception of the 33 points that Ringgold scored on the Catamounts, no team has topped the 30-point mark on Dalton. And even Ringgold needed three overtimes to put that number up on Dalton.
Taking away the Ringgold game, Dalton’s defense is giving up an average of 7.7 points per game, and in the last four games it has given up three total points.
One of those earlier shutouts came against Gilmer in the third game of the season at Harmon. With running back Kelvis Rhodes back in the lineup after missing the first two games of the year, Dalton beat the Bobcats 31-0. But this game will be on the road for Dalton and Gilmer hasn’t lost since playing the Cats the first time. The Bobcats are also coming off of a 38-35 victory over previously unbeaten and seventh-ranked Cedartown.
“We can’t get too overconfident because Gilmer in the region championship is not going to be the same game from earlier in this season,” Durham said. “They have a great offense and really good team. We are just trying to get better and better every single week.”
• One of the easiest ways to view a team’s improvement is to compare things from one year to the next. The improvement for Christian Heritage is easy to see.
In their first season in the Georgia High School Association in 2012, the Lions finished with a 5-5 record, suffering Sub-region 6A-A losses to Gordon Lee, Darlington and Trion. After Friday’s win over Trion, the Lions avenged two of those three losses.
Trion had taken a 32-21 win over Christian Heritage last season, using their wing-T offense to control the line of scrimmage, the clock and the scoreboard. And while the Lions’ offense has consistently put numbers up this season, the victory over Trion marked a coming out party for the defense.
Despite giving up 20 points, the Lions stopped the Bulldogs on downs three times, including a fourth-down stop in the final minutes to preserve the victory. Heading into the Region 6A crossover game with Fellowship Christian, the Lions have four shutouts this season.
One of those shutouts came against the Paladins in the fourth week of the season as the Lions roared to a 41-0 victory.
• North Murray’s option-heavy offense isn’t meant to throw the ball a lot.
Still, Coahulla Creek coach Jared Hamlin wasn’t shocked when the Mountaineers went airborne on their first play with the ball.
North Murray quarterback Hinton McConkey tossed a 33-yard play-action pass to Darius Towns, who wrestled the ball from a Colts cornerback and set up an 8-yard touchdown run from Drake McCowan. Coahulla Creek’s defense had a lot of problems stopping the big passing plays from that point on and allowed four passes of at least 31 yards.
“They did the exact same thing to us last season,” Hamlin said of passing before running. “So, no, it wasn’t a surprise.”
Hamlin is referring to North Murray’s 35-0 victory against Coahulla Creek in the two teams’ first meeting in 2012. Still, the Mountaineers entered Friday’s game running the football 304 times, more than double the 136 passes thrown. North Murray only tossed 14 passes against Coahulla Creek — and completed just seven for 181 yards — but didn’t throw a single time in the fourth quarter, when the game’s result already appeared decided.
• With just one game left in the regular season, the Murray County Indians look to build from what they gave gained under first-year coach Chad Brewer. And even though the outcomes during the last nine weeks haven’t been desirable, Brewer sees plenty to look forward to even if the Indians are a long way from their goals.
“The process is to build a foundation first,” Brewer said. “That’s what we’re trying to do in weight room, by getting our kids bigger, faster and stronger. That’s the first step in all of it. I think we’re going to see a lot of improvement in that a year from now.”
Among the returners next season is junior quarterback Justin “Jug” Smith. The third-year player showed presence in the pocket against a swarming Pepperell defense, completing 13 of 19 passes for 136 yards. His favorite target, junior wide receiver Austin Gossett, caught seven of those passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. Junior Spencer Baggett showed speed and quickness out of the backfield, gaining 56 yards on 12 carries. Freshman Matthew McAllister, a bruising fullback, showed determination on short-yardage situations.
• North Murray’s defense has allowed a lot of points this season. On Friday, it put a lot of pressure on Colts quarterback Blaine Williams.
Coahulla Creek’s first offensive possession didn’t include a first down as North Murray sacked Williams on back-to-back snaps and forced a punt. The Mountaineers forced hurried throws from Williams eight times and forced an interception, which Jonathon Cain returned 56 yards for a score. North Murray forced two other turnovers, both fumbles, and only turned the ball over one time.
“We did have a little bit of a bust on our special teams,” Mountaineers coach David Gann said, “but even our special teams has improved a lot.”
Gann is referring to Darius Miller’s 58-yard kick return in the third quarter following North Murray’s fifth touchdown of the game to take a 35-7 lead. Miller was tackled by kicker Aaron Mendez at the Mountaineers’ 41-yard line, but North Murray’s defense made a goal-line stand on fourth down.
• Northwest’s celebrated big following Friday night’s rout of LaFayette. The Bruins one-game point output set a record, breaking the mark of 56 points Northwest put up in 1991 against Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe. Friday’s point total also gave the Bruins a new standard for margin of victory, shattering the old mark of 53 set against Southeast Whitfield in 2008.
But what may have exemplified Northwest’s heart and fighting spirit best Friday trotted onto the field in the fourth quarter in the not-so-big person of junior defensive back Erich Stark. Reminiscent of the movie “Rudy,” in which long-shot Notre Dame player Rudy Ruettiger overcome the odds to play for the Irish, the 5-foot-1-inch, 105-pound Stark charged onto the field late in the fourth quarter to the delight of Bruins fans.
During his time on the field, Stark played both offense and defense. On defense, he played cornerback and helped repel any late scoring chances for LaFayette’s offense. As a running back, Stark carried the ball twice to set up a late Northwest touchdown.
• The loss to Dalton and Ridgeland’s win over Heritage-Catoosa denied Southeast Whitfield of an opportunity to play in a 10th game with playoff implications. And with little in the way of positives from the loss to the Cats, the Raiders still have positives to play for when they travel to Cass for a Region 7-4A crossover game in White.
While hopes of a winning record are gone, the Raiders can avoid a losing record for the first time since 2009 when they finished 5-5. Southeast hasn’t had a winning record since a 6-5 mark in 1986.
“We still have a lot to play for and want to finish up strong,” said coach Sean Gray. “We still have work to do, and 5-5 is the best way to end this season.”