By Devin Golden
Last year, Dalton overcame Carver-Atlanta’s athleticism in the first round of the Class 4A high school football state playoffs by forcing prolonged possessions that created more chances for the Panthers to make mistakes.
The Catamounts may need a similar strategy for another appearance in the second round this season.
Dalton (8-2) knows Alexander (6-4) has athletes capable of turning any play into a long touchdown, so finding a way to limit and contain those big plays will be key for the Cats in tonight’s first-round matchup at Harmon Field, where kickoff is set for 7:30.
Dalton is a No. 1 seed after winning the Region 7-4A title, while the Cougars are the No. 4 seed from Region 5. The winner of this game advances to face the winner of tonight’s matchup between Lanier and Carver — which Alexander beat 49-13 earlier this season — in the second round.
In last year’s matchup with the Cats in Atlanta, Carver committed 13 penalties and Dalton left with a 17-14 win, its first in the playoffs since 2005 and its first postseason victory at an opponent’s stadium since 1992. Those 13 penalties helped stall quite a few possessions for Carver, which entered with 3,000 rushing yards during the regular season but only had one lengthy offensive play against Dalton, an 89-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Against another athletic Atlanta-area team, the Cats will try to test their opponents’ patience again.
“We believe that in high school football it’s a chore to drive 10 and 12 plays,” Dalton coach Matt Land said. “You just don’t have many teams that can do that.”
Douglasville’s Alexander won the final two games of the regular season to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 1997, which was also the last winning season for the program before this year. Coach Matthew Combs, who’s in his fourth season as the Cougars’ coach, guides a team that has scored an average of 32.3 points per game in 2013.
“Going into the beginning of the season, we knew we had the ability to score,” Combs said. “We knew we had the pieces.”
Mikell Lands-Davis, a junior running back, has 220 carries for 1,759 yards and 21 touchdowns, according to statistics listed at maxpreps.com. Quarterback Baylor Whitfield, a sophomore, has passed for 1,221 yards and 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Before the season, Combs moved Brian Dansereau from quarterback to receiver, and he has 546 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns.
“They’re by far the best team we’ve played all year,” Land said. “Notoriously, when we play Atlanta teams, speed is their advantage, so we don’t want to put ourselves in a track meet with them.”
Combs said any team that wins eight games is “no slouch,” and Dalton’s defense proves that true. The Cats — who have won eight in a row since dropping back-to-back games to Ringgold and Calhoun to start the season — have shut out four opponents this year and allowed just 13 points total in their previous four games.
“(Alexander) is going to have some size and speed that we haven’t seen since last year,” Dalton senior linebacker Lyle Durham said. “We’ll have to get used to that.”
The most impressive result from Alexander’s resumé may be one of the four losses. Ahead 42-38 early in the fourth quarter against Sandy Creek — the 2012 Class 4A state champion, current Region 5 champion and the top-ranked team in the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class 4A poll — Alexander lost 52-42 in the closest game undefeated Sandy Creek has had this season.
Alexander’s other losses came against Class 5A’s McIntosh, 21-7, and region foes Troup, 37-10, and Carrollton, 63-21. All three made the state playoffs in their respective classifications. Carrollton finished second in Region 5-4A, while Troup finished third.
“I think there’s an old saying about being battle-tested,” Combs said. “I think playing those types of games may help you if you’re playing the same team a second time. ... Have we played good football teams? Yes. Have we played other football teams? Yes. From looking at the film on Dalton, they have played some tough football games. Maybe they don’t have the prestige behind their opponents, but they have.”
Dalton junior tailback Kelvis Rhodes twice left last week’s region championship victory against Gilmer because of injury, but Land said he will play. Rhodes has accounted for 852 yards rushing on 115 carries and 16 total touchdowns. He missed the first two games this season with a shoulder injury.