HOMERVILLE -- The Clinch County Panthers know what they're up against tonight.
Hawkinsville is 14-0 and No. 1 in the state. The Red Devils are the defending state champions. They've won their last 29 games. They have several Division I prospects.
In other words, these guys are good.
But this is the state championship game, and it's supposed to be the best two teams in the classification. And Clinch County knows that to be the best, they're going to have to beat the best.
Clinch meets Hawkinsville tonight for the Class A state championship, in a battle of the last two state champions. Kickoff at Bobby Gentry Stadium comes at 8 p.m.
Hawkinsville was the 2003 state champions, Clinch won it in 2002. The teams met in the semifinals at the Georgia Dome those years, with Clinch winning in a rout, 36-0 in 2002, and Hawkinsville winning last year, 25-7. In 2002, the Panthers dominated arguably the second-best team in Class A, while last year's game went into the fourth quarter with Hawkinsville leading 6-0 before HHS broke the game open against a mononucleosis-ravaged Clinch team (17 players had gotten mono that week).
While Hawkinsville goes in as the favorite this year, Clinch doesn't intend to back down. The Panthers want this state championship as much as the Red Devils do.
"Hawkinsville's got a great football team, and they're going to be tough to beat, but it's down to one game, and anything can happen," Dickerson said. "Our kids believe they're going to win, and that's because you have to believe you're going to win. If you don't, you'll probably lose. We're going to give it our best, and like I said, play to win."
"I want another ring before I graduate," senior center/nose guard Jonovan Williams said. "We're going to give it all we've got and play our best. They want to win state, but so do we."
The marquee matchup of the night will be Hawkinsville's offense against Clinch's defense -- the best offense in Class A (38 points per game) squaring off against the best defense in Class A (6 points per game).
"That may be the greatest offense in Class A history," Dickerson said. "They do a great job running the ball with Marshall, and if you key on him, Coley can beat you throwing the ball to some good receivers. And they've got at least two Division I linemen (Brandon Perry and Trey Dunmon)."
"(Clinch has) a defense that looks like the Berlin Wall, where they won't let anybody through," Hawkinsville coach Lee Campbell said several days ago.
"They have tremendous athletes, they have great speed and they arrive at the ball in a bad mood. If you can't loosen them up, they are like dang piranhas," Campbell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If they see a little speck of blood, they are like a pack of wild dogs."
Quarterback Todd Coley (1,813 yards, 20 TD, 6 int.) leads Hawkinsville's balanced attack. He completes 56 percent of his passes and can also run with the ball. His favorite targets are Kemuel Spivey (33 rec., 660 yards, 9 TD) and Lafallis Anderson (32 rec., 438 yards, 8 TD). But Hawkinsville is just as strong on the ground, where All-State back Jeremy Marshall has rushed for 1,566 yards and 24 touchdowns. Fullback Jonathan Duhart has run for another 799 yards.
"They're the toughest offense we've played all year," Dickerson said. "Most Class A teams will rely on the run, or if they've got a good passing quarterback, they'll be good throwing the ball. But you rarely see a Class A team this good at running and throwing the ball."
But if any defense can slow down the Red Devils' offense, it's Clinch's. Opposing ballcarriers have gained less than 0.2 yards per carry against the Panthers (385 carries, 61 yards). No team has run for more than 54 yards on them, and no runner has gained 100 yards on Clinch since Marshall ran for 181 last year.
"Our defense has done an outstanding job this year," Dickerson said. "This is a special group of players, some of whom have started three years for us. We've been able to stop the run all year. But Marshall's a tough back to stop, especially with the linemen he's got blocking for him."
Clinch's offense will also have to find a way to score against Hawkinsville's defense. Perry (6-foot-3, 290 pounds) is considered one of the nation's top defensive tackles, and he and Dunmon make it tough to run inside. End Robert Hall has nine sacks and a team-best 77 tackles. All four Hawkinsville defensive linemen are 6-foot-3 or taller.
"They've got a good defense, with two or three D-1 prospects, and that includes Perry," Dickerson said. "We're going to have to get after them, and try to find a way to score some points.
"We have to take advantage of every chance we get, and we can't give them any points."
Clinch's offense will simply do what they've done all year: run the football, and occasionally pass when the situation is right. Sophomore tailback Justin Gainey (1,478 yards, 22 TD) will carry much of the load again, a role he's thrived in this year.
"(Gainey) runs like a bull in a china shop," Campbell said.
When Gainey's not running, backup Jared Bighams (586 yards, 10 TD) or quarterback Lamar McKnight (538 yards, 11 TD) usually will.
Clinch has completed its final practice of the season, the players are fired up, they've gotten a good night of rest (Dickerson's orders), and now the Panthers are ready to play for a state championship.
"We're ready to play," Dickerson said.
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