Cairo at GainesvilleWhen: 7:30 tonight
Where: Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park
Coaches: Cairo, Tom Fallow; Gainesville, Bruce Miller
Records: Cairo (9-3); Gainesville (12-0)
Key players: Cairo, RB Laquinton Williams (6-2, 205 Jr.); QB Brian Walker (6-0, 185 Sr.); FS/WR Jeremiah Bodiford (6-0, 185 Sr.). Gainesville, QB Blake Sims (6-0, 190 Sr.); WR Tai-ler Jones (6-0, 185 Sr.); LB A.J. Johnson (6-3, 235 Jr.)
Outlook: The top-ranked Red Elephants put their 15-game home win streak on the line tonight when they play host to Class AAA defending champion Cairo. The Syrupmakers lost 19 seniors off of last year’s title team, but enter tonight’s game with some momentum after beating Region 3 champion Baldwin in Round 2.
Cairo’s 9-7 win in Round 2 was a stark contrast to Gainesville’s 41-10 win over Dunwoody, in which the Red Elephants scored 27 points in the third quarter to turn a close game into a blowout.
At the forefront of those 27 points was the talented defense of Gainesville, which had interceptions on three straight pass attempts, scoring a touchdown on one of those picks.
Another touchdown came via a blocked punt by Taylor Stowe, who blocked the kick and recovered the ball in the end zone.
The defense will be tested against Cairo, a team led on the ground by Williams, who has 980 yards rushing this season. Teams have had trouble running the ball against Gainesville, which has allowed 113 total rushing yards in the first two rounds.
Gainesville is led on defense by the linebacking corps of Johnson, Thomas Sprague, Alberto Sanabria and Graham Simmons, who have combined for 487 tackles (40 for a loss) this season.
Cairo’s defense, which is allowing only seven points per game, will also be tested by Gainesville’s high-powered and balanced offense. Sims leads the way for Gainesville with 1,892 yards and 25 touchdowns in the air and 668 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The Red Elephants also have two players that have eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in rushing and receiving, with Jones accumulating 1,163 yards and 16 touchdowns and Teryan Rucker running for 1,011 yards and 12 scores.
“You can’t pinpoint one thing when a team is 12-0 and has the type of athletes they have,” Fallow said of how to stop Gainesville. “The key for us is how we control the personnel around their big playmakers.
“They have a lot of strengths.”
Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The reigning champs are taken out by this year’s top team.
Flowery Branch at Carver-ColumbusWhen: 7:30 tonight
Where: Memorial Stadium, Columbus
Radio: 1330-AM; 99.3-FM
Coaches: Flowery Branch, Lee Shaw; Carver-Columbus, Dell McGee
Records: Flowery Branch (9-3); Carver-Columbus (11-1)
Key players: Flowery Branch, QB Connor Shaw (6-2, 200, Sr.), RB Imani Cross (6-1, 218, So.), K/DE Billy Thompson (6-0, 200, Sr.). Carver-Columbus, RB Isaiah Crowell (5-11, 204, Jr), QB Devin Burns (6-2, 183, Sr.), DE Corey Crawford (6-5, 245, Sr.)
Outlook: Flowery Branch is 6-0 in road playoff games over the past two seasons and will need every bit of momentum and confidence that stat might muster tonight against Carver-Columbus.
The Tigers, who beat Woodward Academy 33-7 in Round 2, come in averaging 34 points per game with a stout running attack — a weakness for Flowery Branch’s defense during the regular season.
Crowell scored two touchdowns against Woodward (87 yards and 5 yards) and ran for 228 yards (8.7 yards per carry) in the Tigers’ first-round win against Burke County. A week earlier he ran for after 230 yards and two touchdowns in Carver’s Region 2-AAA title-clinching win against LaGrange.
When he’s not on, the Tigers have a bevy of other running backs to hand off to, or Burns — a University of Maryland verbal commit — has the capability to run it himself.
Defensively, the Tigers are led by defensive end Corey Crawford, who along with offensive lineman David Beasley (6-3, 294) has verbally committed to Clemson University.
Carver allowed only 10 points per game during the regular season, but because of the 21 points put up by Burke County in the playoff opener, that average has increased to 14.
In their last two games, the Falcons’ defense has defeated its running game demon. Doing that tonight, however, won’t be as easy because of the type of talent and speed they are facing. Crowell has reportedly been clocked at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
In two playoff wins this season, Flowery Branch has managed to hold its run-first opponents to 17 points per game — a touchdown less than the points allowed during the regular season — while playing their own version of small ball offensively.
After averaging better than 45 points per game in the regular season relying heavily on the pass (Shaw has 2,663 yards passing this season), Flowery Branch is scoring 26 per game in the playoffs, but is effectively running the ball and the clock.
Against Ridgeland and Grady combined, the Falcons ran for 349 yards while passing for 325.
Prediction: CARVER-COLUMBUS. It’s once again been a heck of a playoff run for the Falcons, but it comes to an end tonight at the hands of a team that’s simply better this year.
Cook at BufordWhen: 7:30 tonight
Where: Tom Riden Stadium
Coaches: Cook, Mac Thompson; Buford, Jess Simpson
Records: Cook (7-5, No. 4 Region 1-AA); Buford (11-1, No. 2 Region 6-AA)
Key players: Cook, RB Armad Turner (5-9, 180 Sr.), WR Trey Register (6-1, 185 Jr.), DB Ladale Abernathy (6-1, 185 Sr.). Buford, FB/LB Jessel Curry (6-2, 217 Sr.), OL Du’Von Millsap (6-5, 333 Sr.), OL/DL Kolton Houston (6-5, 280 Sr.).
Outlook: It’s really no surprise that Buford is in the state quarterfinals. The same can’t be said for Cook.
The Wolves, making their 10th consecutive appearance in the state quarterfinals, defeated Pepperell and Jefferson to get to this point in the season.
Meanwhile, the Hornets entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed from Region 1-AA, then upset Northeast-Macon and Appling County to set up a trip to Tom Riden Stadium. Cook is making its 10th consecutive playoff appearance, this time around under first-year coach Mac Thompson.
The Wolves’ strength rests with their size. Buford is led by an offensive line featuring 330-pounder Du’Von Millsap, 280-pounder Kolton Houston and 270-pounder Shaun Artz. Meanwhile, Cook doesn’t have nearly the size to utilize, but uses a two-platoon system to keep players fresh in its spread formation.
“We have a lot of respect for what Buford’s team has done and its tradition,” Thompson said. “It is hard enough to have to play them, but even harder when you have to play at their place.”
Turner is the Hornets’ leader on offense with 800 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. At wide receiver, Cook’s main target is Register (20 catches, 400 yards, six touchdowns).
Buford’s defense should present challenges for Cook’s offense. The Wolves have recorded seven shutouts this season and nine times allowed seven points or less. Meanwhile, the Wolves have scored at least 30 points in seven games this season.
Abernathy and B.J. Henry, both defensive backs, each have five interceptions and are leaders for Cook’s defense. The Hornets have allowed less than 20 points in eight games this season, including an early regular-season loss to Class AAAA’s Brunswick.
The winner of tonight’s game advances to the state semifinals to face the Fitzgerald/Callaway winner next Friday. Buford has played in the state semifinals each of the past two seasons. Cook last made the state semifinals in 2007 and lost to Lovett.
Prediction: BUFORD. The Wolves roll out a big night on offense and qualify for the state semifinals for the third consecutive season.