The showdown that folks in Catoosa and Walker Counties have hoped for all season long will finally come to fruition next Friday night.
While undefeated Ridgeland was coasting to 6-0 with a 62-0 home win over LaFayette, fellow unbeaten Heritage was playing its part in Tunnel Hill as they dispatched a reeling Northwest Whitfield squad, 44-21, in a game that the 7-0 Generals led 44-7 going into the fourth quarter.
Riding a first-team defense which coach E.K. Slaughter said had given up just four touchdowns in seven games, the Generals (3-0 in Region 6-AAAA) will host the Panthers (2-0 in Region 6-AAAA) next Friday night with the region seemingly on the line in the battle of unbeatens. Pickens (4-2, 2-0) still looms on the schedule for both teams, but next Friday's winner will likely emerge as a favorite for the title.
While the defense has been outstanding for the Generals, the offense hasn’t been bad either. Add in the fact that Heritage has scored a touchdown by either special teams or off of a defensive turnover in six of its seven games and it is easy to see why the Generals have become a viable threat to Ridgeland, which is fourth-ranked and has been the consensus pick for the region title since the preseason.
"When you can play well in all three phases of the game, you end up playing in big games like next week," Slaughter said. "It is hard to believe we would be here four years ago, and I couldn’t be prouder of this staff and this senior class."
Meanwhile, the Bruins, who lost at home to Ridgeland, 48-7, on Sept. 23, saw their postseason aspirations take a major hit on Friday.
Senior quarterback Luke Shiflett, who was already playing with an injured wrist to his non-throwing arm which required surgery, left the game with an ankle injury and his status for the rest of the season is up in the air. He was scheduled to have X-rays and consults with physicians Saturday morning to determine the severity of the injury.
The MTSU commit rolled his ankle on the first series of the game against the Generals, but played through the pain through much of the first half despite a noticeable limp and limited mobility. But on the Bruins’ final series of the first half, Shiflett rolled out of the pocket to avoid pressure and finally couldn’t take anymore as the ankle gave out and he crumpled to the ground.
"It popped a few times during the first half, and then it was just done," said Shiflett, who had to be assisted to the locker room and spent the second half on the sidelines with crutches or on the trainer’s table.
"We will know more (Saturday morning), but best-case scenario it's a high ankle sprain, which is bad enough," Northwest coach Josh Robinson said. "I hate that for him. Things have not went well for him during his senior year."
Even with Shiflett, there was little the Northwest offense could generate and very few times the Bruins’ defense slowed the Generals down. One busted coverage that allowed running back Dominique Sistrunk to get behind the Heritage’s secondary accounted for Northwest’s only score against the Generals’ defense.
Take away Sistrunk’s 80-yard catch-and run for the score, and Northwest had just 44 yards of total offense in the first half.
Both teams sputtered at the onset with Heritage fumbling the ball away on its first possession and Northwest only making a first down after Shiflett took a bad snap on a punt and made it into something.
But Heritage scored on three of its next four possessions, thanks to finding some rhythm on offense and a forced turnover.
Ryan Carter capped off an eight-play, 96-yard drive with a 6-yard run on a drive that saw quarterback Blake Bryan complete all four of his pass attempts for 68 yards.
Northwest’s defense was able to get a stop as Bryan was incomplete on a fourth-down pass attempt at the Northwest 32, but three plays later Heritage’s defense made a play to totally shift momentum to the Generals.
The defensive rush off the edge that gave Northwest fits all night forced Shiflett to fumble the ball away and Heritage recovered at the 15, setting up Bryan's 15-pass over the middle to Luke Grant for a 14-0 lead.
Northwest seemed to get a stop it needed after Heritage’s next drive stalled at the Bruins’ 7, but the Generals converted on a fake field goal with a pass from holder Johnathon Hickman to Brody Campbell for a 21-0 lead.
In the second half, Northwest found little rhythm with freshman quarterback Matthew Redmond pressed into action. The Bruins’ first five plays of the second half went for negative-18 yards and a fumble.
Carter scored on a 22-yard pass from Bryan on Heritage’s first drive of the second half, and a 32-yard fumble return by Jeffrey Curtis gave Heritage a 35-7 lead with 1:53 left in the third quarter. Grant would add a 16-yard scoring reception and the defense added a safety when a snap went over Redmond’s head and he downed the ball in the back of the endzone.
Northwest (4-3, 1-2) got cosmetic touchdowns from Sistrunk on a 2-yard run and a 19-yard scoring run from Brady Hughes in the fourth.
Heritage kicker Ryan Craft was 6-of-6 on extra points.