Thursday February 11th, 2016 8:09AM

Dragons ready for first huge region test at Washington-Wilkes

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
JEFFERSON -- "These are the games you play for."

Jefferson football has played in a lot of "big" games over the past two seasons, and coach Ben Hall says his Dragons can't wait to test themselves in their biggest so far this season when No. 7 Jefferson travels to face No. 5 Washington-Wilkes on Friday.

"Everyone affiliated with the program is up for this one," Hall said.

Indeed, everyone associated with or interested in Region 8-AA football will have their ears open for scores from Washington, as the defending 8-AA and Class AA champs take on the Tigers -- who finished second in the region last season.

It's not the only intriguing showdown on the 8-AA schedule this week, however, and there also will be plenty of interest in what happens in Tiger on Friday, as undefeated Rabun County, plays host to a rapidly-improving Riverside Military Academy.

Call it "judgement night, part I" for 8-AA. And, yes, like so many horror films from the 1980s, it will be followed by plenty of sequels.

The next few installments could have much to live up to, however, as this week's marquee contest features two teams that rely on both size and athleticism in a mouth-watering match-up.

"They will be the most athletic team we've faced so far," Hall said of Washington-Wilkes -- which is high praise considering the Dragons (4-1, 1-0 Region 8-AA) have already faced four state playoff teams from a season ago, including Class AAA semifinalist North Hall.

"We've got to contain their athletes," Hall added. "And they also have good size on both lines. They average 270 pounds-plus on both sides of the ball. Their quarterback can run and throw, but he likes to pass, and they have several talented wide receivers. "

Guided by quarterback Deandre Harris and running back Quay Blackburn, both sophomores, the Washington-Wilkes spread offense enters the contest averaging 43.6 points per game.

Yet Jefferson's defense has dominated in three of four games, allowing just 10 points in its victories -- the one exception being a 41-34 defeat to North Hall in which Hall notes that his team learned plenty of valuable lessons.

"We went toe-to-toe with a really good team," Hall said. "You hate to lose any game, but playing a team like that only makes you better."

The Dragons certainly appeared motivated by the setback. After taking a bye to ruminate on the defeat, the Dragons torched Greene County (the No. 3 seed from 8-AA a year ago) 55-10 last week.

The scoring output was Jefferson's highest of the season but by no means bucked a trend for an attack averaging 44.5 points per contest.

Led by quarterback Evan Shirreffs (64-of-106 passing for, 953 yards, 11 TDs), running back Tristen Jackson (366 yards rushing, 5 TDs) and three outstanding athletes in Isaiah Blake (161 yards rushing, 5 TDs; 12 catches, 121 yards, 1 TD), TJ Skelton (15 catches, 273 yards, 5 TDs) and Dalton Hill (14 catches, 210 yards, 1 TD), the Dragons also present match-up headaches for opposing defenses -- though Hall says his offense will have its work cut out on Friday.

"We have to establish the run and protect the quarterback," Hall said. "If we can't run the ball it could be a long night."

The Tigers, including linebacker Jason Gartrell (who had nine tackles and a sack in last week's 41-10 win over Union County), have allowed no more than 14 points in any one game this season and will look to keep Shirreffs under pressure, dialing up blitzes, while mixing their coverage schemes to confuse the Jefferson attack.

Hall believes his team is ready for the task, however.

"I've been really pleased with our line of scrimmage so far; they've taken pressure off Evan, and he's also stepped up and played well," Hall said. "Our execution across the board on offense has been good to see."

And after putting up the program's best ever season in 2012, the Dragons are focused squarely on repeating the feat in 2013.

"These guys don't want any drop off," Hall said. "It's a mature group, and they've worked hard. It's going to be a tough game Friday, but our guys know they have to be focused on what's going to happen on the field."

And what does happen on the field is sure to have the ear of northeast Georgia football fans come Friday.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Tiger Field, Washington
-- JEFFERSON (4-1, 1-0 Region 8-AA): Defeated Greene County 55-10 last week. The Dragons are ranked No. 7 in Class AA
-- WASHINGTON-WILKES (5-0, 2-0 Region 8-AA): Defeated Union County 41-10 last week. The Tigers are ranked No. 5 in Class AA.
-- HISTORY: Jefferson won the last meeting 31-0 in 2012. Washington-Wilkes leads the series 10-3, which was resumed last season after a 42-year hiatus.
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