Region 1’s reign over the state’s second-highest classification will continue.
Region champion Lee County (14-0) and third-place Northside-Warner Robins (9-5) guaranteed that when they advanced to the Class AAAAAA championship game, to be played at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The winner will become the third consecutive team from the region to win the title, following Valdosta in 2016 and Lee County last year.
The biggest question for Northside, as it has been for all of Lee County’s opponents, will be whether it can move the ball against a Trojans’ defense that is allowing a state-best 5.5 points per game.
Valdosta coach Alan Rodemaker got a first-hand look at the finalists during region play, meeting both schools in the Wildcats’ final two games of the regular season. Valdosta lost to Lee County 63-7 but rebounded with a 46-44 victory over Northside to clinch the region’s No. 2 seed for the playoffs.
“Lee is very good on defense because they pressure you from start to finish with a half-dozen four-, five- and six-man pressures,” Rodemaker said. “They call their play on defense regardless of what you do, and they do it for 48 minutes non-stop with very good, quick, fast, aggressive players. Northside was able to move the ball against them earlier this year by mixing up the run and the pass, mostly run. That is the way to beat them. Run the ball consistently, and that is difficult because with their pressure they will get a negative-yardage play on you and put you off schedule. You can't expect 3-4 yards each time. You have to be patient.”
The team that had the most offensive success against Lee County this season was Creekview, which was 12-0 and ranked No. 2 when the teams met in the quarterfinals. Creekview’s 20 points were the most allowed by the Trojans all season, but Lee County won 42-20.
“Lee County is one of the most complete teams in the state,” Creekview coach Adam Carter said. “They are big, fast and physical. I asked my coaches what they thought was a weak point, and we didn’t come up with an answer. I’m not sure I have seen a defense as fast as them other than Grayson in 2016. … They send pressure a lot. You have to have an answer in the run game to eliminate penetration. The safety is a big part of their run stop, so I think you must take your deep-ball shots. I do not think they have a weakness. Best team in 6A, possibly the state.”
Northside counters with an offense led by quarterback Jadin Daniels, the Region 1-AAAAAA player of the year. He has passed for 1,565 yards, rushed for 1,549 yards and accounted for 31 touchdowns for an offense that averages 32.4 points per game.
Northside was held to 133 yards of total offense by Lee County in the regular-season meeting but led 7-3 at halftime before eventually falling 24-7. It was Lee County’s closest game of the season.
“[Daniels] hurt us with his speed and quickness, said Sequoyah coach James Teter, whose team lost to Northside 30-6 in the quarterfinals. “He does a great job of managing their offense, but his ability to run the ball and make defensive players miss was his biggest asset. He is very elusive, and once he gets in your secondary you know you’re in trouble.”
Added Rodemaker, “Jadin Daniels is the key offensive player for Northside. He can run and throw and scramble and compete. We were up on Northside 21-0 and again at 42-21, and he staged a comeback both times with his arm and his legs.”
Northside’s defense doesn’t come in with the same eye-catching numbers as the Trojans, but the Eagles have had their moments. They held Lee County to its lowest point total of the season, about 20 points below its 43.6 average, and have allowed just 8.5 points per game in the playoffs after surrendering an average of 20.8 in the regular season. And the Eagles had the same number of players (five) as Lee County on the all-region first-team defense, although Lee County also had the defensive player of the year, nose guard Anthony Harvey.
“Northside’s defensive line speed was a major issue for us,” Teter said. “Their ability to rotate players in and out along the defensive front line was a problem for us all night long. One of the things that we rely most on in our Wing-T offense is our ability to pound on defenses and wear them down by the fourth quarter. Versus Northside, we knew with them rotating so many players we were not going to have our normal fourth-quarter advantage. Once we got down 23-0 in the first half, we had to abandon the run game and start throwing the ball. The speed of their defensive line became a bigger problem as the game went on.”
A victory would make Lee County the first team to win back-to-back championships in the second-highest classification since Northside did it in 2006 and 2007. And the Trojans will be heavy favorites to do just that.
“I have felt all year that it was Lee and everyone else in 6A,” Rodemaker said. “However, Northside played them better than anyone else in our region, and I feel that Northside has gained some confidence through their playoff run. Northside's best chance would be for the game to be low-scoring.”
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Credit: Mark McKay, Channel 2 Action News