After a myriad of injuries in the first half of the season, the Ridgeland Panthers are finally starting to get healthy, and they couldn't have picked a better time.
After snapping a three-game losing streak with a 35-20 home victory over Southeast Whitfield last week, the Black-and-White will once again enjoy the friendly confines of Bowers and Painter Field on Friday night as they welcome in head coach Josh Robinson and his Northwest Whitfield Bruins. Kick-off is set for 7:30 in the Region 7B-AAAA contest.
Ridgeland head coach Mark Mariakis said his players have had a little extra pep in their step this week.
"The kids have really been upbeat all year long, but they are feeling good about the improvements they have been making," he said. "They are starting to learn each other and learn the schemes so their confidence is growing."
The Panthers (2-4, 1-1) got their ground game got back on track last week with 339 yards and five touchdowns against the Raiders. Three scores and 161 yards came from sophomore Caderius Word, while junior Calvin Davenport ran for 116 yards and scored once.
"Offensively, this will really be the first time all season that we've been able to start the same group in back-to-back weeks," Mariakis explained. "This is Week 7 so that should give some idea of what injuries have done to us this season."
Northwest (5-1, 1-1) is averaging a cool 41 points per game this season, and have topped 49 points in three of their five games. Junior quarterback Caleb Shiflett has filled in more than admirably for the graduated Silas Ledford. Shiflett set a school-record with five touchdown passes in a 54-14 win over River Ridge, and equaled that mark a week later versus Heritage in a 49-7 win.
The Bruins other three wins have come at the expense of Pepperell (38-20), Pickens (25-13), and Cass (52-35).
However, the Bruins were brought back to earth last week with a 31-28 loss to rival Dalton in Tunnel Hill. Northwest led 14-0 after one quarter, only to see Dalton comeback to take the lead in the second half. A Bruins' touchdown with 2:06 to play tied the game, but the Catamounts drove the field and won the game on a last-second field goal.
Running back Jacob Webb is the go-to guy in the Northwest rushing attack, while Andy Whisenant is a top target at receiver. The Bruins will also use Tevin McDaniel in both the running game and the passing game, giving them multiple threats on offense.
On defense, the Bruins have speed and experience, led by outside linebacker Isaiah Mack. Mack, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound pass-rushing specialist, will give the Ridgeland offense an extra tough assignment.
"They're balanced," Mariakis said. "They like to run it a little more because they have some good skill kids and a big offensive line, but they do throw it. They like to get the ball out into space and spread you out so you have to defend the whole field.
"They pose a lot of problems on offense, and defensively, they are as good as we've seen all year in terms of size, speed, and the schemes they run. They gave us a great game last year and we expect our hands to be full again."
Last year, in Tunnel Hill, the Panthers found their rhythm in the second half and pulled away late for a 35-20 win. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak to the Bruins, although Northwest still leads the all-time series, 11-3.
The winner will gain a solid hold on second place in the subregion standings behind Dalton, who already owns the tiebreaker against both the Panthers and Bruins by way of head-to-head victories.