Well, we’re right where I thought we might be back in early August: Garner vs. West Johnston in what is likely a Greater Neuse River 4A Conference football championship game this Friday in Benson.
And I’m sure the Wildcats (8-0 overall, 5-0 conference) and Trojans (8-1, 5-0) kind of had this as a distinct possibility in the back of their minds as well.
Both teams have a lot of similarities. They love to run the ball and do it to score a lot of points (West 43.8 points per game, Garner 44.1), they play very strong defense (West 8.75 points allowed per game, Garner 9.4), they both have pretty veteran coaching staffs and they both stand to be a very high (possibly No. 1) playoff seed in their respective playoff bracket with a win (West in 4A, Garner in 4AA).
So what will it take to win for both sides? Here are the keys. …
It’s a Running Game
Garner’s defense vs. Tony Mack: Tony Mack, West’s senior tailback, will probably be the toughest-to-tackle back the Trojans have played this year. West coach Jimmy Williams broke out the “you couldn’t tackle him in a phone booth” to describe Mack’s effort against Clayton and that was an understatement.
Mack is a slasher and a dasher who often leaves the opposition tackling air once he plants that lead foot in the ground and makes a cut.
Garner’s key is to limit Mack’s yards after first contact and after Mack makes that cut.
West’s defense vs. Collin Eaddy: The first thing West Johnston needs to realize about Eaddy is that he’s faster than he looks on tape and faster than you think he is. I only think I’ve really seen Eaddy running at full tilt twice this season in the four Garner games I’ve seen, but he’s always been fast enough to get away from everybody he needs to in the open field.
His numbers aren’t great this year because of an injury early in the season and Garner’s ability to build big leads thus cutting down on his runs, but he’s every bit the latest in a very long line of Trojan standout tailbacks.
You know what’s coming with Garner’s run game: the toss, the sweep, etc. The Wildcats just have to figure out how to limit it.
The other guys in the running games: Just when you think you’ve figured out who to key on in the run game, the other guy can kill you with these two teams. In this case, both of these ‘other’ guys score at least a TD a game on average.
With West, that’s quarterback Andre Wilson, who can decimate a defense with the read option or the old-fashioned pitch option. He has a long stride and can cover ground quickly if all you see is Mack coming through the middle and forget about Wilson, who still has the ball.
With Garner, it’s fullback Anthony Stephenson. I don’t think I’ve seen a Stephenson run this season that was for more than 15 yards (I may have missed one or two). But what kills defenses with Stephenson is not the long run; it’s the 6-yard run on first down to set up 2nd-and-4.
That’s where the Trojans kill the opposition because their play calling options are so more open — and cue the Al Davis’ Raiders-like deep play-action passes.
Speaking of the passing game: Both teams’ passing games thrive off of the run action. Garner’s pass routes are more vertical in nature; West prefers the slants and crosses. Just don’t fall asleep if you’re in the secondary on either team.
The other factors: Both teams’ defensive lines can dominate games, both are backed by strong linebackers so there is going to be pressure on both offensive lines to keep those bigguns in the trenches off of their ball handlers. … Special teams are an area that the Trojans have thrived this season. They blocked two punts last week and have recorded safeties on defense in each of the last two weeks. West can’t let Garner ‘Patriot’ them: i.e. make huge plays on defense or special teams that change the game. … The Wildcats would have to be considered the team that has much of the on-field football execution factors on its side: they’re at home; its Senior Night; its homecoming (delayed because the planned homecoming against Apex Friendship lost out to Hurricane Matthew). … I’m sure the wheels will be turning in the minds of many of the veteran coaches on both sides all week. Garner head coach Thurman Leach and West head coach Jimmy Williams have been trying to out-scheme each other on at least one Friday night a season for a long time, dating back to Williams’ time at East Wake and Leach’s run as Garner’s defensive coordinator. And there are guys like Chuck Proffitt, Brian Roach and others on both sidelines who spent more than a decade trying to figure out what the guys in the polo shirts on the other sideline are thinking.
Final thoughts: I expect this to be a low 20s to high teens kind of scoring game, something neither of these teams have played so far this season.
Then again, I expected the West-Clayton game — 48-0 — to be closer than Clayton-Garner — 50-0 — was. Not because I think West is a lesser team than Garner, but because I thought Clayton matched up better with West than it did with Garner. So what do I know?
I know one thing: I’m looking forward to Friday night.