BY TOMMY PRIDDY
All last week, Henry County High School football coach James Counce Jr. told his team and anybody else that would listen that the key to beating Memphis Ridgeway in the first round of the TSSAA Class 5A state playoffs could be winning the special teams game.
He was as good as his word as the Patriots caused return game turnovers, blocked kicks, limited Ridgeway’s return yards, used punts to control field position and kicked a key field goal in posting a hard-fought 10-6 triumph Friday night at a cold Patriot Stadium. Counce said Ridgeway may have entered the game as the No. 4 seed from Region 8-5A but the Roadrunners had the talent and skill to have been one of that region’s top two teams.
“Ridgeway has good size and quickness up front. They have guys with speed that can beat you on any play. They’ve played an extremely tough schedule. They may have been the kind of team that played up and down from week-to-week but there were times they played very, very good football. Their linebackers were probably a lot better than we anticipated. They played great defense but our guys did all the things they needed to do to win a close playoff game. I’m very proud of how we handled playing that type of game,” said Counce.
Counce said it was good for the Patriot starters to be challenged for a full four quarters because it hadn’t happened in recent games. He said the Patriots (9-2) would have to continue to be ready to rise to playoff challenges as they prepare this week to host Clarksville High School at 7 p.m. Friday at Patriot Stadium. The Wildcats (7-4) rallied in the fourth quarter to win 29-28 at Munford in their first-round matchup.
“We have a lot of guys that have played a lot in the playoffs the last couple of years. We are going to be depending on them to make sure that everyone understands that what happened in the regular season or last year in the playoffs, doesn’t have anything to do with what is going to happen now. We may have beat Clarksville earlier this season in region play but they are a much better team now as the result from Friday night shows.
“They have some guys back that were hurt when we played the first time that are making a difference for them. They will have some confidence after winning on the road in the playoffs and I’m sure they’d like nothing better in the world than come here and knock us out of the playoffs. We are going to have to be ready for surprises and we are going to be ready to play. Still, we are confident enough in what we do that we know that if we get ready to play the right way in practice this week and show up ready to play Friday night while executing the things that we always do, then we are going to be okay,” said Counce.
Henry County posted a 35-13 win Sept. 20 at Clarksville.
PATRIOTS CREATE EARLY TURNOVERS
Counce felt like the Patriots might have a good shot at creating a turnover on kickoffs against Ridgeway but admits he didn’t have a clue that it would come on the game’s opening kick. The Roadrunners mishandled a short kickoff along their sideline with the Patriots recovering the ball at the Ridgeway 22-yard line.
Henry County drove in to score a touchdown with Joseph Travis running four yards on the scoring play. Darrius Stephens hit the extra point and the Patriots were up 7-0, just 90 seconds into the contest.
It didn’t take long for them to score again. Ridgeway had a three-and-out series which led to a punt attempt. The Patriots blocked the kick and recovered the ball at the Roadrunners’ 38.
A penalty slowed the drive and Henry County had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Stephens to take a 10-0 lead with 5:48 still left in the first quarter.
On Ridgeway’s next drive, the Roadrunners got long runs from both Quintarrius Ayers and Keone Russell to get in position to score a touchdown. Quarterback Jeremiah Lucas ran 15 yards on a scramble to score a touchdown for the Roadrunners. The Patriots got a hand on their extra point kick and it was short, leaving Henry County on top 10-6 at the end of the first quarter
DEFENSES DOMINATE LATE IN GAME
Ridgeway began to aggressively attack the line of scrimmage with a wave of defenders and kept the Patriots from driving in the second quarter.
Henry County was aided on defense by the Roadrunners snapping the ball high over the quarterback’s head to kill one drive while also repeatedly breaking into the backfield to make tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Patriot defenders frustrated the various quarterbacks the Roadrunners turned to so much that one was flagged for intentional grounding when trying to get rid of the ball while being tackled by Patriot lineman Davy Harrod.
No points were scored in the second quarter to make the halftime score 10-6.
ROADRUNNERS FAIL TO CASH IN
Ridgeway got the break it needed to take control of the game when Henry County fumbled on the opening kickoff of the second half, with the Roadrunners recovering the ball at the Patriots’ 40.
The Roadrunners used the run to get inside the Patriots’ 25, but got pushed back by a penalty. Ridgeway started to throw the ball to the end zone but Henry County was able to run with their receivers and stay in position to prevent completions. The Roadrunners wound up punting the ball away.
“I can’t say enough about how well our defense played. We have developed some depth up front which is keeping guys fresher and I thought it showed Friday night. We also have some depth at linebacker and those guys ran around to make plays. Our secondary did a great job of running with their receivers, getting in good position and making plays to keep them from completing passes. I’m really proud of how those guys on defense performed,” Counce said.
PENALTIES SLOW BOTH OFFENSES
Both teams played championship quality defense all night but they were aided by some penalty flags. There were only 12 penalties called in the game, five against Ridgeway and seven against Henry County but all of those flags seemed to kill a promising offensive drive by either the Patriots or the Roadrunners.
“Those calls really did prevent us from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm. But it is the playoffs and you just have to adjust to what they call,” Counce said.
PATRIOTS COMPLETE TWO BIG PASSES
With the defenses dominating play, running the clock became the most important element in Henry County’s victory. Two fourth-quarter drives were extended when quarterback Ryan Damron hooked up with receiver Jawon Odoms.
The first came with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, when Odoms reached high to snare a pass and then dragged a group of Roadrunners to midfield for a 29-yard gain. Henry County eventually punted but the Patriot defense held and the Roadrunners kicked the ball back to Henry County with just over three minutes left to play.
Damron connected on a 17-yard pass to Odoms on third down to keep the drive going a minute later and the Patriots were able to run out the clock without giving Ridgeway another shot at the football.
FLIPPING THE FIELD IMPORTANT
Counce said punting the ball became important when the game turned into an intense defensive battle. Patriot punter Eli Bona kicked seven times for a 36.6 yard average and the Roadrunners were only able to return one punt in the game for just six yards.
“Eli has been doing a great job as our punter all year. He has improved in reading the rush and may be holding the ball a little longer to allow our cover guys to get downfield or if he gets pressure, he has done a good job of catching the ball and getting the kick off. He did all of that perfectly Friday night and really helped us flip the field and not give Ridgeway any short drives,” Counce said.