North Murray’s offense has been strong so far. The defense’s performance tonight will be key.
North Murray, undefeated three games into the season, faces its biggest challenge yet tonight. The school welcomes high-powered Cartersville to Mountaineer Stadium for the Region 5-3A opener for both teams.
The Mountaineers have just one of two home games tonight for area programs, with Northwest Whitfield hosting Cass in the other. Christian Heritage is at Fellowship Christian, Coahulla Creek is at Sonoraville, Dalton is at Gilmer and Murray County is at Armuchee. All kickoffs are set for 7:30 p.m.
North Murray has averaged a little more than 40 points per game this year while allowing just shy of 24. The Purple Hurricanes (3-0) — ranked third in the Northwest Georgia Prep Power Poll and eighth in both The Associated Press’ and Georgia High School Football Daily/Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Class 3A polls — are averaging exactly 30 points per contest behind the arm of talented junior quarterback Brooks Barden.
Because of that, North Murray coach David Gann believes the No. 1 factor for stopping Cartersville’s offense is pressure.
“When you have someone who is as smart as he is and understands where everyone is supposed to be, if you don’t get pressure then he’ll have a field day,” Gann said. “We’re going to try and put pressure on him and disrupt him a little bit.”
Outside linebacker Jared Campbell agreed, saying the Purple Hurricanes “live and die on the big play.”
“We’re really preparing for the passing game. We want to put pressure on the quarterback, because he doesn’t like getting hit,” Campbell said.
“They like to get the ball to their receivers in the open field. ... We want to put pressure on that quarterback, because I think he’ll be a little more timid with his eyes and looking at us more than the receivers.”
This summer, Cartersville (3-0) won The Daily Citizen’s Southeastern 7-on-7 Championship and another seven-on-seven tournament hosted by Cam Newton in Sprayberry, Fla. Two of the weapons Barden will have at his disposal are senior wide receivers Josh Cooper and Hayes Land.
“He’s got four kids out there now to throw to who are capable of taking it the distance any time they touch it,” Gann said.
Cartersville coach Frank Barden, the quarterback’s father, said his team faces a similar challenge of stopping the opponent’s offense — except it’s the run, not the pass, that North Murray leans on.
“They’ve got kids who have been in the program for three or four years and are rightly deserving of being a good football team,” coach Barden said. “They’re a typical I-formation team. They want to run the ball and run the option, but (quarterback Brady Swilling) is a great athlete and can throw the ball as well.”
Christian Heritage (2-1) at Fellowship Christian (1-2)
There was a great level of anticipation surrounding Christian Heritage upon entering the GHSA at the beginning of the season.
With Sub-region 6A-A play set to begin next week — tonight is the Lions’ final regular-season game outside of league play — coach Preston Poag is confident in his team’s ability, but said there is still work to be done as it heads to Roswell tonight.
“We can get better. We didn’t block real well last game,” Poag said. “After watching film you know you don’t always play as good as you think you played.
“It (was) a hard week on the linemen practicing. It’s all good. The linemen have to be tough and we have to stress blocking a little bit better. If we do that, we’re going to be a dangerous offensive football team. We’ve got a lot of different weapons and a lot of good leadership on offense. I look for big things.”
Christian Heritage’s 27-3 win last week at Coahulla Creek was a step in the right direction, and although the win was significant, Lions running back Jake Stokes is looking at the bigger picture.
“Coahulla was a good test,” Stokes said. “I think most people will give us more respect when we start beating the teams that most people know, like Darlington and Gordon Lee.”
No matter which team is on the schedule, Poag said he wants his team to stay focused on the task at hand.
“I don’t really try to think about those teams yet,” Poag said. “All of those teams are good and it’s going to be a battle. We’ve got to be ready for anything with Fellowship. They fake ... they onside kick, pooch kick. They do all that kind of stuff. They faked a punt on their own 10-yard line one game, so we’ve got to work on that.
“My expectation is to play hard every game. If we play hard and we’re a physical football team, the other stuff will take care of itself.”
Coahulla Creek (1-2) at Sonoraville (1-2)
The Colts will be the homecoming guests of the Phoenix, but coach Jared Hamlin is more worried about his offense than any festivities.
Coahulla Creek scored 55 points in its opening win over Murray County and 34 in a loss to Gordon Lee. But the Colts managed just a field goal in last week’s loss to Christian Heritage. Hamlin is anxious to find production again ,and it begins on the ground.
“We need to run the ball,” Hamlin said. “Once we start running the football, other things will open up. We didn’t do a good job of running the football, and that made it hard to get in a rhythm.
“We are going to try to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers. We haven’t done a good job of that, and we have to work on consistency up front.”
Sonoraville is coming off a close victory over Model that was more costly than coach Roger Gentry wants to admit. Gentry said his team would be moving some players around in the spread offense he installed last year.
Asked if injuries were a factor on Wednesday morning, Gentry said no.
“Right now, we are just having to move some players,” Gentry said. “We felt like some players could be in some other spots to help us.”
But on Wednesday afternoon, The Calhoun Times reported that running back Jackson Murray suffered a hyperextension in his bicep in the win over Model and will be out two to six weeks. Still, the Phoenix have a strong offense triggered by 6-foot-6-inch quarterback Tyler Harris.
“They have a big quarterback and a big offensive line with a big running back,” Hamlin said. “It is another challenge, but we are going to get better this week.”
Dalton (1-1) at Gilmer (3-0)
Dalton hasn’t spent much time dwelling on its last game — a 55-41 loss to Calhoun, the state’s top-ranked Class 2A team, on Sept 7.
Instead, Catamounts coach Matt Land’s focus quickly shifted to the Gilmer Bobcats.
“Once Monday came around we flushed that game,” said Land, whose team was off last Friday for the second time this year but now faces eight straight games to close the regular season.
Dalton worked on three problem areas — penalties, turnovers and missed tackles.
“We always want to enjoy wins, but sometimes we need to absorb a loss and learn lessons as to why we lost,” Land said.
Dalton’s offense gave the Yellow Jackets one big headache. Running back Kelvis Rhodes rushed for 205 yards on 19 carries, including six touchdowns — from 1, 5, 15, 22, 50 and 75 yards — with all but one score coming in the first half.
“That kid is a very good player,” Gilmer coach Wesley Tankersley said. “Give him an inch and he can take it for a touchdown every time. We have to do a good job of tackling against Dalton.”
After yielding 55 points to Calhoun, the most scored on Dalton since Rome got 53 in 1947, Land wouldn’t mind seeing a defensive tussle tonight in Ellijay and believes Gilmer will do its part.
“They may give up a few plays here and there, but the closer you get to their goal the tougher they get,” Land said.
Dalton’s team speed worries Tankersley.
“We’re usually behind the 8-ball with that pretty much against everybody we play,” he said. “I tell you this: Dalton is the most talented team we’ve played so far.”
Murray County (0-3) at Armuchee (0-3)
For both teams, the 2012 season hasn’t included many bright spots.
But three non-region games hold little weight, and after tonight, one of the teams will have a leg up where it matters.
Murray County’s previous three weeks of disappointment can be put in the past with a win tonight in Rome, which would mean a 1-0 record in Region 7-2A play.
“You win three region games and you’re in the playoffs,” Murray County coach John Hammond said. “Those first three games were non-region, and you can look at it as tune-up games or whatever. The next seven are what is most important.”
Armuchee coach Preston Cash shared those sentiments, making it apparent both sides see the value of a win.
“Both of us are hungry for a win,” said Cash, whose program is facing Murray County on the football field for the first time despite the fact that both Northwest Georgia school have been playing football at least since the 1950s.
Hammond said the two squads, which share the nickname of Indians, are similar in size and speed.
“Our first three games everyone was a little bigger, stronger and faster than us,” Hammond said. “We’re finally getting into some region games, and this week we match up athletically and size-wise. We’ve got to go down to their place. It is going to be a new experience for us because we haven’t been down there to play.”
However, Hammond wants to fix the mistakes from the first three weeks, including turnovers.
“Not so much against them, but right now we’re not so much worried about them as we are about ourselves” he said. “We can’t turn the ball over six or seven times like we did last Friday night.”
Cass (2-1) at Northwest (2-0)
Both the Colonels and the Bruins have just one repeat foe from last season — each other. The two schools are the only two members of Region 7-4A who were members of the region last year, before GHSA reclassification shook things up, so there is a lot of familiarity between the two schools, even if one of them has dominated the rivalry.
Northwest Whitfield has won all 10 meetings, but the obvious storyline coming into tonight’s home opener for the Bruins is the battle between the Cass offense and the Northwest defense.
The Colonels have averaged just more than 30 points per game in getting off to a 2-1 start, with their lone loss 24-20 to intracounty rival Cartersville. Northwest has allowed a total of 14 points in its two wins.
“Athletic is the best word to describe them,” Bruins coach Josh Robinson said. “The quarterback is a playmaker, and he has some good players around him. He is the key to their cause.”
Junior quarterback Brandon Etheridge is just one of a class full of players who started as sophomores for coach Rick Casko last season. The youth of the team showed as the Colonels floundered to an 0-10 record in 2011, but Casko said this group has grown and matured.
“Just the physical maturity and the experience from last year are the biggest things,” Casko said. “The confidence and comfort is there now, and they have hung in there with a good camaraderie.”
Robinson agreed that this is a much different Cass team from last year.
“The offensive line for Cass is so much better than it has been in years,” Robinson said. “They are one of the better teams in this region.”
— Compiled by sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming and Dave Gordon.