In the past two weeks, Dalton has won by as many as 42 points and as few as four.
The winning part is all that matters for the Catamounts.
In the classic do-or-die single-elimination format, Dalton will travel tonight to take on Carver-Atlanta in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs at Lakewood Stadium.
Dalton (7-3) is coming off arguably its most complete performance of the season, a 42-0 drubbing of Pickens in last week’s Region 7-4A play-in game. Carver (9-1) is coming off a 42-14 loss to Marist in the Region 6 championship.
But not all of Dalton’s wins have been as “pretty” as the one against the Dragons.
“Sometimes it’s ugly and it’s 14-10,” Dalton coach Matt Land said, referring to the Cats’ win two weeks ago at Southeast Whitfield. “Sometimes it’s pretty and 42-0. As long as we win, I won’t get caught up in the score. Last time I checked, they don’t give extra points for style.”
After a 2-3 start, Dalton saved its season with a 24-19 home win against Northwest Whitfield.
Three weeks ago, Dalton won 33-21 against winless Heritage-Catoosa. The season’s first two wins include road victories at Ringgold, 21-19, and Gilmer, 28-21 in overtime.
“I think we have, for whatever reason, gotten used to being in the fourth quarter and realizing we had to make some plays to win a game, maybe to save some games and maybe to ice some games,” Land said. “I’d like to think our guys, with the exception of one or two games, have played all season under pressure.”
Carver coach Darren Myles — who has seen his program make a 180-degree turnaround from 2011, when the Panthers went 2-8 — is aware of the mental approach the Cats will bring into tonight’s game.
“Whenever there are playoffs, you have kids coming in with a lot of confidence, especially when you have won five in a row,” he said.
And that confidence comes from a successful run-oriented offense and a defense that has allowed an average of just 10 points per game in the second half of the season. All six of Dalton’s touchdowns against Pickens were on the ground. Sophomore running back Kelvis Rhodes and senior quarterback Cole Calfee each scored twice, while defensive end and fullback Robert Hardaway and senior running back Jerry Moreno each scored once.
“If I had to pick two players that jump out, it would be (Calfee) and (Rhodes). In the games recently, it would be the fullbacks (Hardaway and Eder Mora),” Myles said, noting he also is concerned about Dalton’s play-action passing game. “You get passes on run downs and runs on passing downs.”
Carver has also relied on the run. Nearly 3,000 rushing yards for the season equate to a per-game average just shy of 300 for the Panthers. Senior Montavious Taylor has 1,435 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Carver’s quarterback, Jordan Holden, has 1,290 yards passing and eight touchdowns with nine interceptions.
“I think the big thing for us is not giving up big plays,” Land said. “There’s going to be two, three or four 20-yard runs, but our first thing will be not letting them get the quick scores.”
Hardaway, who started the year primarily as a defensive end but now shares fullback duties after midseason roster changes, sees a similar priority for the Cats’ defense.
“We have to eliminate big plays and hope they can drive it,” he said. “They seem to be a big-play oriented team. That seems to be what drives their offense. If we can eliminate that, then hopefully that will play a big role.”
Carver’s defense will have one of the bigger lines Dalton has seen. Land said Pickens was big up front, and the same for Ringgold. Dalton won both of those games, but the Panthers combine their linemen’s size with athleticism.
“Their defensive linemen range anywhere from 6-3 to 6-5 and go anywhere from 230 to 270,” Land said. “They get a tremendous amount of penetration because of their size. They also do a great job of protecting their linebackers, who are smaller. They’re 5-11, 165 to 170, but run exceptionally well. It’s obvious their plan is to congest the middle and flush you out to their strength, which is making you run side to side.
“They’re much more athletic than Pickens was but have the same size. ... We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The secondary is fast, Land said, and is expected to play a lot of man-to-man coverage on Dalton’s receivers.
Senior wideout Brandon Dale is up to the challenge when Dalton decides to go airborne.
“If it gets into a foot race, I like our chances,” he said. “I know my speed and I know Kelvis’ speed.
“I think we’re just as fast as they are, honestly. Their big guys up front are probably more athletic than ours, but I think we’ll match up well with them.”
The winner of tonight’s game will face the winner of Region 8 No. 4 seed Eastside and Region 5 No. 1 seed Sandy Creek, the top-ranked team in the Class 4A state polls, in next week’s second round. Higher-seeded teams host through the state semifinals.