It’s not exactly a do or die situation, but it is a clash of Region 7-3A titans.
White County (4-0, 0-0 Region 7-3A) travels to Dawson County (1-3, 0-0 Region 7-3A) on Friday in a contest that will feature two potent offenses with plenty of weapons and an early lead in the region standings. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Tiger Stadium in Dawsonville. White County leads the series 6-2 and beat the Tigers, 45-42, in 2017.
“I just know how well they’re coached,” White County coach Tim Cokely said about Dawson. “Their quarterback is a really good player and they have a good scheme to go with it. Our quarterback is a dual-threat guy, so we’ll see. We have a lot of faith in what we do and have confidence in how we play and so do they. It’s two really good teams on Friday night and something great to talk about.”
“Playing White County, it’s tough to prepare for that,” Dawson County coach Sid Maxwell said about White. “Their quarterback does a good job of moving the chains, finding the open receiver, and if he doesn’t do that, he takes it himself. He’s very elusive, so I’m hoping that we can improve our level of play and give us a chance to have some success.”
A win would put either team in at least an early tie at the top of the region standings and, possibly, in the driver’s seat for the region title. Cherokee Bluff, also a preseason favorite to vie for the top spot, plays Gilmer, and North Hall welcomes West Hall to The Brickyard in other Region 7-3A action.
Although both coaches admit they know it's a big game with the potential of putting their team in the region driver's seat, both downplayed any talk of a possible region title.
“It’s a momentum game for both teams,” Cokely said. “They are playing really well right now. It’s not do or die, but, I think, we are two of the better teams in our region, and so we’ll certainly have a way to measure our teams after Friday. So, it’s really important because it’s a region game. I still think it’s a long region schedule, and there’s a lot in front of us.”
Maxwell said his team understands the importance of playing well in their first region game.
“I believe they do, but at the same time, I’m hoping they are focused on what they need to do and not on who they’re playing, because White is a really good football team,” Maxwell said. “They’ve beat some really good people and are scoring a lot of points.
The Tigers have struggled to finish this season. They fell in the season opener to Cass, lost back-to-back shootouts against Flowery Branch and South Forsyth before beating Northview two weeks ago. The possible culprit of the 1-3 start could be the defense. It is near the bottom in Class 3A, giving up 37.7 points per game.
Meanwhile, White County has cruised to two easy wins over Stephens County and Pickens, went toe-to-toe with Hart County to pull it out 50-47 with a late score and outlasted Habersham Central in a 28-21 win two weeks ago.
But the two region foes have no issues scoring. White County averages 41 points per game, and Dawson County is scoring 35 ppg. Could this one be another shootout?
Cokely doesn’t buy into the shootout theory. After all, most thought the Habersham Central game would be one, but it wasn’t.
“We did what we had to do against Habersham,” Cokely said. “But I think more people get conservative when they get into region play. So, I would doubt it’s a shootout. I think in region play people seem to play a little closer to the vest.”
Dawson County will showcase its passing game, led by junior quarterback Zach Holtzclaw (56-108-2, 975 yards and 11 touchdowns), receivers Jaden Gibson (25-328, 5 TDs), Dakohta Sonnichsen (9-1471 TD and Tyler Lane (16-246, 3 TDs).
But the run game hasn't been as effective as Maxwell would like. Right now, running backs Isaiah Grindle (52-294, 3 TDs) and Nic Baloga (15-118, 2 TDs) are leading the team's rushing attack, but Maxwell said he wants to see more production out of the backfield and a better push from the offensive line.
"We’ve got to improve some areas of running the ball and be a little more physical up front, but it’s going to be a challenge that we’re looking forward to," Maxwell said.
White County has dual-threat senior quarterback J. Ben Haynes (51-84-2, 739 yards passing, 5TDs, 68-594 yards rushing, 12 TDs), who will be tough to defend. He has receivers Cooper Turner (14-179 yards, 3TDs) and Darius Cannon (7-176, 2TDs), along with Riley Stancil and Jimmy King, to form a solid receiving corp and has running back Silas Mulligan (69-324, 3TDs), who can do damage out of the backfield.
“It’s going to be hard to control and keep White County from scoring,” Maxwell said. “We’re going to have to do our best to raise our level of play to match score for score. We’ve got to keep getting better.”
Cokely points to special teams as being the biggest key to winning the game.
"Most road games are always about special teams,” he said. “For us, Friday night, it's a pretty even matchup, so I think we have to gain that one percent advantage with the hidden yards on special teams."
Maxwell quickly said taking care of the football will be crucial on Friday.
“The simple answer is you’ve got to take care of the football,” he said. “We have to have our quarterback to put us in the right play and move the chains. If we can drive the football, we can keep it away from their explosive offense. It should be a great game to watch.”