MOULTRIE – From one year to the next, losing a game on an untimed field goal meant nothing. From the next year to this one, beating that same team 45-0 has no bearing on how preparations are going for the third meeting in as many seasons.
Summing up the recent series between Colquitt County High and North Gwinnett on the football field, it’s been about a state championship decided with no time on the clock one year and complete decimation in the Class 7A quarterfinals the following season. Circumstances with the weather took the 2017 7A finals out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and onto North Gwinnett’s home field, where the Bulldogs won in miraculous/heartbreaking fashion. The rematch in 2018 took place on Tom White Field at Mack Tharpe Stadium in Moultrie, and the Packers – simply put – steamrolled on to the semifinals.
No, neither team was completely the same from 2017 to 2018. That sentiment applies going from 2018 to now, when the Corky Kell Classic pits these two schools for the ‘rubber match’ of sorts on Saturday (fingers crossed) inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But the fact that this is a match-up of familiarity takes a far back seat to the fact that this will be the first game for Colquitt County High football under new head coach Justin Rogers. The former Jones County boss will stand on the Mercedes-Benz sidelines for the first time opposite North Gwinnett’s Bill Stewart, who watched the last two meetings unfold as leader of the Bulldogs.
While there is no real game film to study on the 2019 North Gwinnett team, Rogers is fairly certain it’s a group that will not be beaten by 45 points, not easily anyway.
“This isn’t the same Colquitt County team as last year either,” he said. “This is a completely new year, a completely new North Gwinnett. No doubt this game will be different.
“Last year (Colquitt) was able to big-play them. You had about three explosive big runs and two big passes that blew some things open. We are going to work to try to create those explosive plays this year. But (North Gwinnett) is a very good football team. You can tell by the players on their team. They have an excellent coach.”
To recap, senior running back Ty Leggett scored five touchdowns, one where he caught a forward flip by the scrambling Jaycee Harden. The Bulldogs ran for just 77 yards and threw for 135. Senior cornerback Jay Ward picked off two passes.
The Bulldog quarterback then and now is JR Martin. In all in 2018, he passed for 1,694 yards and 20 touchdowns, and Ward’s two picks represented half the INTs Martin gave up overall.
North Gwinnett’s running game has a familiar name in Devin Crosby, who scored 10 touchdowns last year backing up Tyler Goodson. Most of the attention, however, is on receiver Josh Downs. Committed to North Carolina, Downs has 89 career catches for 1,533 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The Bulldog defense features 6-5, 215 pound lineman Jared Ivey (six sacks in 2018), 245-pounder Chuck Smith and junior linebacker Barrett Carter, reportedly with an offer from Alabama.
“They are solid in the box,” said Rogers, commenting on these defenders’ ability to knock the football down. “They are going to challenge us in the perimeter. We have to be willing to step up to the occasion and get the ball in space.”
Were first-game jitters taken care of by playing a scrimmage the week before?
“I’m sure come Saturday there will be some nerves,” said Rogers. “You are going to have nerves anytime you compete. That’s the beautiful thing about our job … allows us to have butterflies. That’s a good part of competition. I’ll probably have a couple of more than normal with this being my first time as the head man at Colquitt County.”
Then there’s the factor of playing inside. The Packers get that experience every day with the indoor practice facility. Rogers likes the idea of not missing days due to weather and having a consistent setting. If it will offer an advantage for Saturday’s game, Rogers said it’s possible but there will be differences such as the lighting.
On Aug. 16, Colquitt County was in game action for a fall scrimmage that was signed only three weeks before the kickoff. Prior to the last weekend of July, the Packers didn’t have an opponent for any practice game in the fall, then it was announced that Colquitt would go to Lake City, Fla., to play Columbia High. As is typical for scrimmages, the varsity regulars only went three quarters while the fourth was turned over to junior varsity.
With the starters still on the field, Colquitt County pulled off a game-winning touchdown play – the only play of the series – when Daijun Edwards hauled in Harden’s short pass and sprinted 77 yards to the end zone. That answered a tying score by Columbia, and the 21-14 lead for Colquitt held to the final buzzer.
“We made mistakes we knew we were going to have in that first game,” said Rogers. “You are always going to do some things wrong. We recognize we didn’t run our feet on contact very well on the O-line to sustain blocks. We knew who to block; it’s just finishing those blocks is the biggest problem.
“We had three nice drives (early on), nine-play, 11-play, 11-play, then we kind of sputtered out.”
Specifically on the go-ahead score, Rogers said they stressed to the offense it was a two-minute drill since they would not be playing the fourth period. They needed to attack the drive like it was the end of the game.
“Defensively, for the most part we did well,” the coach said. “Just gave up a couple of big plays that kept things alive on third down. We could have gotten off the field on some third-and-longs, understanding the situations instead of giving up first downs in the throw game. We also have to do a better job of staying in our lanes. That running quarterback could have given us some problems on contain issues.”
One of the special teams highlights was blocking a kick, but Rogers said even this unit missed some chances like a block that could have resulted in a big return.
“It was so good that we found that scrimmage,” he said. “We feel we’ll make a lot of improvements from (that) to (the season opener). It was a great film to learn off of.
“Hats off to Columbia. They have a great football team with a lot of speed. We have to do a better job of understanding that early in the year, this thing is a marathon. We are going to continue to grow and get better. You have a lot of players who are in new roles who maybe played some last year but didn’t play in this role and this many snaps. We have to continue to stay optimistic and understand that when you play good teams, it’s going to be good games.”