Habersham Central goes back out on the road tonight to try and right the ship after opening the season with two wins, then falling the last two weeks to even their record heading into regional play.
The Raiders take on Winder-Barrow, a squad that came into John Larry Black Field last year and escaped with a wild 41-40 win after a missed extra point in the final minute.
“It’s the first region game, and I think we both look at this as a game we really need if you want to end up heading to the postseason,” Raiders coach Benji Harrison said. “It’s a big game. We have had some good ones with them over the last few years, so we expect that again.”
The Raiders let a second-half lead slip away against Stephens County, an error they have prepared all week to not duplicate tonight.
“We’ve been working on trying to get pressure on the quarterback from the inside and outside,” Raiders senior lineman Avian Shields said. “Our offense and defense have been doing well, last week really came down to a couple of plays. We have to keep doing what we are doing and play a little harder.”
Those big plays came on touchdowns of 76, 64 and 42 yards by the Indians, which accounted for half their yardage for the entire game.
“One of those, we had a busted coverage with some confusion and it led to a touchdown, so we addressed that this week,” Harrison said. “On the other, they got it to their best guy one-on-one, and we missed a tackle, and that happens sometimes. He made a play and that’s what playmakers do.”
Penalties were also a strong point of emphasis for the Raiders in practice this week.
“We just have to play and not hurt ourselves,” Harrison said. “If we can eliminate mistakes, I feel like we can do some good things Friday night.”
Harrison said he believes the Raiders can “absolutely” fix their penalty problem, which has resulted in 11.5 yellow flags per game so far.
“There are two different kinds of penalties. Sometimes you get penalties due to being aggressive. I can live with those,” Harrison said. “But false dead ball penalties, or holding penalties due to not doing what you’re supposed to fundamentally, those are unacceptable.”
Winder-Barrow (1-2), which has not played the last two weeks, will have some new faces, as their top passer, rusher, receiver and tackler from last year’s game against Habersham Central all graduated over the summer. J.C. Green is their leading ballcarrier with 348 yards and five touchdowns, while Stewart Allen has six catches for 185 yards and two scores to lead the Bulldoggs.
For the Raiders, quarterback Joshua Pickett took the team rushing lead last week, sitting at 618 yards and six touchdowns for the season. Running back Jackson Clouatre got off to a blistering start in the first two games, but defenses have made a concerted effort to slow him down in the last two. Clouatre still has 602 yards and four touchdowns this year, and he carried 32 times for 176 yards and a touchdown against Winder-Barrow last season.
“We have to get both of them going,” Harrison said of Clouatre and Pickett. “I think we would have had them going the other night except for penalties in bad spots. If we can get both of them going on the same night, we have seen what that looks like.
Harrison also wants to see the passing game improve and make plays tonight as well.
“The way Winder plays, we are going to have to throw and catch and do it with more consistency,” Harrison said. “We want to take shots downfield, we shoot for 4-5 big plays per game. But we also have to be more efficient and hit the short routes and high-percentage stuff to keep the defense off balance and have to cover the whole field. When you become one-dimensional, you get into trouble.”
Defensively, the Raiders have been solid in the last two games, but were victimized by those big-play scores.
“Overall, I felt like our defense played well. I thought we attacked and made some negative plays, which you have to do,” Harrison said. “On defense, you have to force a high school team to drive the field on you. If they can drive the field on you, then you tip your cap, but we have to stay out of the big plays.”
Habersham Central did not reach the playoffs last year and can match its win total from 2019 with a victory over the Bulldoggs. The Raiders have their eyes on bigger prizes this season and are determined not to let the last two losses slow them down.
“We are excited about this game coming up, especially the seniors,” Shields said. “This is our last time through and we want it to be a good one.”