Ridgeland, Heritage bring dynamite defenses into 6-AAAA battle tonight
With Halloween nearing and high school football’s regular season entering its home stretch, it’s time to find out what’s real and what’s make-believe.
It doesn’t get any more real in northwest Georgia tonight than Ridgeland at Heritage.
The Region 6-AAAA co-leaders haven’t just rolled through their schedules undefeated — the Panthers are 6-0 overall and 2-0 in 6-AAAA, with the Generals 7-0 and 3-0 — they’ve done it in such dominating fashion that Georgia High School Football Daily listed tonight’s matchup at Jeff Sims Field as one of the state’s top games this week.
Each team’s per-game averages for points scored and points allowed rank in Class AAAA’s top 10. Ridgeland’s 4.6 points per game allowed is the best in the state in all classifications. Heritage has allowed an average of 12.29 points, but a closer look paints the Generals’ as much stingier. Their first-team defense has allowed 32 points this season, giving them the same 4.6 points per game as the Panthers.
In today’s era of fast-break, air-it-out offenses, the defensive numbers stand out.
“With both teams, as much as anything, it’s the experience factor,” Ridgeland coach Wesley Tankersley said. “Just like us, they have a lot of kids back and that experience means everything.”
The Panthers have posted two shutouts and given up a single touchdown in their other four games this year. The unit is led by 2016 Class AAAA defensive player of the year Markeith Montgomery, a cat-quick, ball-hawking safety who is just as good against the run as the pass.
The biggest improvement, Tankersley said, has come up front, where Eli Foshay, Derayl Helton and Jordan Tucker have consistently made their way into opponents’ backfields — and whatever might get past them is quickly smothered. The three have combined for 16 tackles for loss.
Montgomery is the team’s leading tackler with 57, and along with Azavier Blackwell, Jordan Hughley and Shawn Wilson, he heads a secondary that has given up virtually nothing through the air.
“Our defensive line has played really well,” said Tankersley, whose team allowed nearly 20 points per game a year ago during a nine-win season. “We had quite a few younger guys playing last year, and they’re just more comfortable this year.”
Heritage’s defensive leap has been even more pronounced. The Generals gave up nearly 26 points per game last season, including 56 in a lopsided loss to Ridgeland. The improvement, Slaughter said, has been experience in coordinator Jeremy New’s schemes, a good year in the weight room and the ability of the defensive line to keep blockers off the team’s excellent group of linebackers.
That group — Zaine Burton, Jeffrey Curtis and Hank Weldon — have a combined 145 tackles. Nearly a third of those have been for negative yardage, led by Burton’s whopping 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
“Zaine’s been playing his tail off, and those guys in front of him have been doing their jobs as well,” Slaughter said. “The whole unit is playing as well as any I’ve been around.”
What worries Slaughter is the overall team speed the visitors will bring with them tonight. Montgomery, also a wingback in Ridgeland’s wing-T offense, has averaged 16 yards per carry this season, while receiver Stephon Moore has eight touchdowns on 19 catches and has averaged 25 yards per touch. Fullback Jalyn Shelton, who torched the Generals a year ago, has 509 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“It’s difficult,” Slaughter said of preparing for the Panthers. “They do a good job getting their athletes in good situations. The also have that inside power game, so it’s difficult to game plan.”
On the other side, the Panthers’ defense will face the most diverse offense it has seen this season. The Generals don’t run often, but they have four players, including quarterback Blake Bryan, who have rushed for more than 200 yards. The main playmakers are senior wide receivers Ryan Carter and Luke Grant, each of whom has averaged more than 100 yards in the past two games.
“Those guys are good, but we’re not going to change anything we’ve been doing,” Tankersley said. “They will get a big play at some point in time, but we want to limit those plays.”
The game is arguably the most important in the eight-year history of the Heritage program, something not lost on Slaughter, who has told his players to enjoy the moment.
“Everybody is excited, amped up a bit more than usual,” said Slaughter, who took over prior to the 2014 season. “Four years ago, this game was far off in the distance, and for us to be able to host a game like this with championship hopes on the line, it’s a testament to the coaches and kids.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere. I expect it to be a lot of fun.”
Ridgeland senior safety Markeith Montgomery has a nose for the ball — and taking it away — which means Heritage’s offense has to account for him on every play tonight during their Region 6-AAAA matchup at Jeff Sims Field. Both the Panthers and Generals are undefeated this season.
Linebacker Zaine Burton leads the much-improved Heritage defense with 24 tackles for lost yardage this season. Jeffrey Curtis and Hank Weldon have also stood out.