The Valdosta Wildcats know their playoff situation. If they win tonight, they’ll keep playing. If they lose, their season is probably over.
Valdosta (6-3, 3-2 in region play) will try to earn a spot in the Class 6A state football playoffs tonight, when it faces Coffee at 7:30 p.m. in Douglas.
If they win tonight’s game, the Wildcats will wrap up third place in Region 1-6A. But if they don’t, they will likely finish in a three-way tie for third with Colquitt County and Coffee. Two of those three teams would advance to the playoffs, but the Wildcats would probably be the team that got left out, because the third place team will be the one that has given up the fewest points in region games against playoff-eligible teams, which would likely be Colquitt, and the fourth place team would be the one that won the head-to-head matchup between the two remaining teams.
“There’s a sense of urgency. There’s no question about that,” Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie said. “It’s a huge football game for both teams. Our kids understand that.”
Coffee has gone 5-4 in its first season under new head coach Robby Pruitt. Pruitt won seven state championships in Florida (four at University Christian in Jacksonville and three at Union County), before heading north to the Peach State in 2000. In 11 years at Fitzgerald, he won 120 games.
“What (Pruitt) does, he does well,” Gillespie said. “His football teams execute, and they play hard. They’ve got a good scheme that he totally understands. ... Defensively, they’ve got a good scheme. They give you a lot to prepare for. They do a good job.
“They’ve got a good football team. It’s going to boil down to who can play the best on Friday (and) make the plays that you’ve got to make.”
Pruitt’s teams have run a wing-T offense since the 1980s, and the Trojans have learned his offense quickly. Coffee is averaging about 26 points per game this year.
“They’ve got their own twist to (the wing-T),” Gillespie said. “They’re going to run the trap, they’re going to run the belly strong, they’re going to run the belly weak and they’re going to run the buck (sweep), which are base wing-T plays. They’ve got a lot different spin to it than Camden or Lowndes.”
“They’re big across the (offensive line),” he added. “The quarterback (Keegan McGovern) has been playing extremely well for them. They’ve got some speed at running back. They’ve got some wideouts that have made some plays for them.”
Coffee’s offensive line includes Maverick Morris, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound tackle who has verbally committed to Clemson. Scout.com rates Morris the No. 84 offensive tackle in the country. Coffee’s other tackle, 6-foot-5, 325-pound Justin Lott, is also a college prospect.
Coffee runs a 3-3-5 defense, and likes to put pressure on the quarterback. Gillespie says that linebacker Zach Moore and cornerback Brendan Rowe are both excellent players.
One thing Gillespie says the Wildcats have to be prepared for tonight is trick plays.
“He’s going to pull out two or three trick plays in the night, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re in position to play those,” Gillespie said. “We know they’re coming.”
Like Coffee, Valdosta will depend heavily on its running game. Nelson Herring has rushed for 849 yards and eight touchdowns this year, including 172 yards and two touchdowns last week against Brunswick. Malcolm Joseph, who has 747 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns and leads the team with 25 catches (for 231 yards) was limited by a leg injury last week, but is healthy now.
Wildcats quarterback Shelby Wilkes has completed 59.9 percent of his passes, for 1,283 yards and 12 touchdowns. He threw three touchdown passes to tight end Taijuan Smith last week.
What does Valdosta have to do to win tonight?
“We’ve got to play well on the road, and we’ve got to be prepared for whatever type of atmosphere we get involved in, and be able to play well and perform at our best,” Gillespie said. “We’ve got to be able to go in and play well in that environment, in their place on the road. We can’t turn the ball over. We have to do a good job in the turnover margin. They have not turned the ball over a tremendous amount this year. We’ve got to be able to match up all the different pressures that we’re going to get (from their defense). We’ve got to be able to plug up against a huge line of scrimmage, and hold up to the physicality of that football team. ... We’ve got to eliminate big plays; they’ve had several.”
In Gillespie’s three years as Valdosta’s head coach, the Wildcats have an impressive 9-1 record in games played away from Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. But that one loss came to Coffee last year, a penalty-filled 22-17 setback at Jardine Stadium.
Directions to Jardine Stadium in Douglas: Take U.S. 221 (Park Avenue) north from Valdosta to Douglas. About two miles south of Pearson, 221 will merge with U.S. 441. In downtown Douglas, when the roads split, stay on 441. At the north end of town, about 1/4 of a mile after passing North Connector Road and a BP gas station, turn left into the Douglas Municipal Park and Jardine Stadium (there is a big sign entering the park).