While both North Hall coach David Bishop and White County coach Tim Cokely praised the other’s “all-star players” in this week’s run-up to their annual border war, both admitted that the 47th edition of one of the longest-running rivalries in northeast Georgia may well be decided by an unlikely source.
“They have all-stars all over the field but we know what they’re going to do and they know what we’re going to do,” Cokely said. “You need your best players to make plays but in games like these it’s almost always someone you never figured that makes the key play.”
“They have an all-star in (junior quarterback) J Ben (Haynes) and he’s playing real well right now,” Bishop said. “Plus he’s running the ball a little more which makes him even more dangerous. We’re going to have to get a great effort from everyone this week.
“We’ve been battling some injuries so someone we probably don’t expect is going to have to step up for us. It’s the little things that win games like these.”
The annual clash just across the northern Hall County and southern White County borders is also a contrast in styles. White County (2-1) features a spread attack that likes to score quickly. The Trojans (2-1) run one of the state’s most prolific wing-T offenses, in most years, and likes to control the game and the clock with methodical drives.
The Warriors offense is averaging 34.6 points per game, up significantly from last year’s 22.9 ppg average. They will get a test from a North Hall defense that is allowing just 7.0 ppg even after a 24-7 loss to Class 7A Cherokee two weeks ago.
Injuries have slowed the Trojans offense, which is averaging a pedestrian 19.0 pgg, far below the 42.0 ppg they averaged in 2018. White County has allowed 22.6 ppg on defense.
Cokely feels that in today’s football environment, offense is a must.
“The way football is played today, (teams) score points. Teams run so many plays they wear down defenses,” Cokely said. “J Ben is continuing to get better. He has the tools and can move the ball around. That will be a big key for us.”
Senior Will Sampson and junior Cooper Turner lead a talented group of receivers for the Warriors. A North Hall secondary that has had to shuffle its lineup to account for injuries on the offense will be challenged.
“The injuries we’ve had don’t just affect the offense,” Bishop said. “We’ve had to move some guys around. But the defense has been playing well no matter who is in there. (White County) put pressure on you to cover a lot of guys but hopefully, we’ll be ready.”
It’s not just injuries that have hampered North Hall’s ability to light up scoreboards. Penalties and turnovers have been a constant problem early in the season.
“Our offense is still a work in progress,” Bishop stated. “(Running back) JT (Fair) is banged up. We’ve got two other guys out and we’ve had several linemen that have missed time and we’re not sure about some them for this week.
“But really the guys who have played have stepped up. The problem has been we have five fumbles already this season if you count our scrimmage, and we’ve put the ball on the ground several more times. And penalties at bad times. That has kept us from scoring touchdowns. We have to hold onto the ball if we want to have a chance against White County.”
For the Warriors, while the defense is still allowing more than three touchdowns a game, Cokely said his group is improving each week.
“I definitely feel like we’re making progress (on defense),” he said. “Like I said before, we expect to give up some points just because of the nature of games in today’s football. I think the kids do feel more confident.
“But it’s not so much about confidence as it is about execution. The guys are understanding better about what they are supposed to do and where they’re supposed to be. When you have that knowledge, most of the time the execution comes with it.”
When pressed about adding any new wrinkles to try and get the tiebreaking win in the overall series -- tied at 23 wins apiece -- both coaches played it pretty vanilla.
“Again, we know what they do, and they know what we do,” Cokely said. “We’re four games into the season. We’ve probably seen everything they will do, and the same for them. We’re not going to do anything new on either side of the ball.”
“I don’t really see a lot of tricks going on,” Bishop said. “I think it’s going to be the usual hard-hitting game with both teams really competing hard. Personally, I don’t see a high-scoring game because of a lot of those factors.”
However, neither team is a stranger to success on the road in the series. White County has won three of the last four games at The Brickyard. In fact, the road team has won four of the last five overall.
“There’s no real reason for that except to say that it’s always a tough game, no matter where it’s played,” Bishop said. “We’ll have to play one of our best games of the season. They’ve probably been preparing for this one for nine months so we’ll have our hands full.”
“I can’t explain why the road team has won so much lately,” Cokely said. “But we’ll be ready, and I’m sure they’ve been prepared for this one as well. It should be a fun game.”
WHITE COUNTY at NORTH HALL
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: The Brickyard, Gainesville
-- RADIO: WDUN 102.9 FM
-- WHITE COUNTY (2-1, 0-0 Region 7-4A): Defeated Pickens 27-20 last week
-- NORTH HALL (2-1, 0-0 Region 7-3A): Off last week; lost 24-7 to Class 7A Cherokee
-- NOTABLE: Series is tied 23-23. North Hall won 27-20 in 2018. After North Hall won 16 straight from 1988 to 2008 the two teams have split the last 10 meetings. ... White County has won 3 of the last 4 meetings at The Brickyard. The Warriors also are 5-7 on the road in coach Tim Cokely’s 2-plus seasons but they have lost 5 of their last 6 road games overall. ... The Trojans are 8-2 in their last 10 games at home but one of those losses was to the Warriors in 2017.