Last season, the Northwest Whitfield Bruins were 3-0 in Sub-region 7A-4A play heading into their game against Rome. However, the Wolves beat Northwest 24-6 in Tunnel Hill on their way to the region championship game while helping start a three-game skid that left the Bruins out of the state playoffs.

When the Bruins (4-2, 3-0 in 7A-4A) travel to Rome’s Barron Stadium to take on the Wolves (3-4, 2-2) today at 8 p.m., they’ll try to clinch a spot in a region playoff game that will decide a state playoff berth. The top team from each sub-region after the end of league play on Oct. 30 will earn an automatic berth for state, while the No. 2 and No. 3 teams will have the chance to earn a trip to state with victories in the region playoff games on Nov. 6.

In other local action, Murray County travels to Woodland-Bartow in another 7A-4A matchup, while Southeast hosts Ridgeland in Sub-region 6A-3A competition. Both games have 7:30 p.m. kickoffs.

Tonight in Rome, the pressure to win lies mostly on the Wolves. Another loss and they they’ll be partying like it’s 1999 — the last year they missed the state playoffs.

Northwest senior linebacker Jay Motley knows how badly the Wolves need to win, but that doesn’t worry him.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of pressure on us,” said Motley, whose 61 tackles rank second in the area. “It’s not a game we have to win, but we’re still going to be self-motivated to win it. This game helps to give us a chance to do something (win a region championship) we’ve waited for ever since we’ve been playing varsity football. This is one of the best opportunities we’ve ever had.”

One of the main reasons the Wolves find themselves flirting with missing the state playoffs is a stunning upset loss to Woodland-Bartow on Oct. 2.

Bruins coach Mike Falleur has seen footage from that game and doesn’t believe Woodland had any kind of outstanding game plan. Instead, he thinks the Wolves — who fumbled nine times and lost five of them — beat themselves.

“(The Wildcats) did pressure the quarterback some, which caused some fumbles,” said Falleur, “But the main thing was Rome just mishandled the ball a bunch, which probably means they just weren’t ready to play. I don’t think we can count on that.”

Rome coach Sid Fritts agrees. The week before the Woodland game, the Wolves lost 13-12 to Sequoyah (4-2, 3-0), which currently shares first place in the sub-region standings with Northwest.

“I really do think we let that (Sequoyah) loss carry over to the next week,” Fritts said. “Ball security has always been our thing the last five years, so for us to have five turnovers like that is atypical. Last year, we only had eight turnovers in 14 games. So, yeah, I think we imploded a little bit.”

To stop their two-game losing skid, the Wolves beat Murray County 35-0 last Friday. But Rome has to keep winning to extend its string of trips to the playoffs.

“There’s no room for error,” said Fritts, whose team’s final sub-region game is at Dalton (5-2, 3-1) next Friday. “We can’t slip up against Northwest. And even if we are fortunate enough to win, we can’t slip against Dalton and the staff and this football team knows that.”

Murray at Woodland

Reading — though not in the literary sense — will be key for Murray County’s defense tonight as the Indians take on Woodland coach Steve Hamilton’s offense, which aims to confuse the opposition.

“They run a two-tight end, full backfield T formation,” Indians coach John Zeigler said. “And it’s very deceptive. It’s tough to know who’s got the football. Our challenge is to read our keys because they’re going every which way.”

The offense Woodland (2-5, 1-3) utilizes has been productive this season, with the Wildcats averaging 23 points per game. In back-to-back games early in the season, the Wildcats scored 39 and 33 points against Paulding County and Osborne, respectively.

Woodland’s attack has been bolstered by a healthy Cambrell Turner, a 5-foot-8-inch, 185-pound sophomore running back who is fully recovered from a broken left hand. Turner had a 70-yard touchdown run against Dalton and picked up more than 100 yards on six second-half carries against Northwest Whitfield.

“He’s special,” Hamilton said. “He’s our leading rusher with about 500 yards and he’s averaging 14 yards a carry.”

Stopping the run has been a problem for the Indians (1-5, 0-3) all season. They’ve allowed 1,306 yards on the ground, or 201 yards per game and 5.7 yards per rush.

“When we don’t turn the ball over, we’ve played really well,” Hamilton said. “When we turn it over, bad things have happened to us. We had six turnovers against Adairsville (a 28-20 loss) and four against Osborne (a 37-33 loss). If we win those games, we’d have a lot more confidence right now. Turnovers definitely make us struggle.”

Zeigler is impressed with Woodland’s defense, especially in its 27-14 victory over perennial Region 7-4A title contender Rome.

“If you can stop Rome, you’ve done something. We couldn’t do it,” said Zeigler, whose team lost 35-0 to Rome last Friday. “That should tell you something about their defense. Against Rome they had nine guys in the box and they could do that against us as well.”

Hamilton said his staff has seen changes over the season from Murray’s offense, and they’re preparing for both looks.

“They’ve been doing a few things different,” Hamilton said. “They used a lot of I-formation stuff early, but some spread lately. They’ve got a quarterback (junior Taylor Patterson) with a nice arm. We’ve just got to be ready because I know they’re going to play hard.

“This is a game you hope to get off to a strong start because the longer the other team hangs around, it becomes tougher to beat them. I expect a tough game from Murray.”

Ridgeland at Southeast

The rebuilding years seem to be well in the past for the Mark Mariakis era at Ridgeland, where the Panthers are not only Region 6-3A defending champions, but in good shape to earn another league title.

Another piece of evidence showing Ridgeland (5-1, 2-0 in 6A-3A) looks to be on firm ground for the near future is that this season’s success has come despite having a load of inexperienced players in starting or major roles. But the Panthers — who went 4-16 in Mariakis’ first two seasons but have had a winning record and made the state playoffs every season since — didn’t really have a choice in the matter after graduating 21 seniors from the 2008 roster.

“On defense, we only had four kids coming back, so it’s been a pleasant surprise,” said Mariakis, whose team has four shutouts in his sixth season in Rossville. “The group out there has played well together and the coaches have done a great job preparing them. Basically what it’s been is a group of guys running to the football and giving great effort.”

That’s what Southeast (3-3, 1-1) faces as it returns from a bye week and tries to find its way back to the win column after falling 49-27 to Ringgold on Oct. 2. The Panthers, who are all alone atop the 6A-3A standings, used a Ringgold fumble to set up the decisive touchdown with less than five minutes to play in a 10-7 win against the Tigers last week.

Ridgeland’s only stumble this season was a 35-7 loss in the second week to Calhoun, which is currently 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Class 4A state poll.

While the Raiders have scored at least 20 points in every game this season, they know finding the end zone won’t be easy tonight.

“(Ridgeland’s defensive) alignment is going to stay pretty consistent — they’ll be a 4-4 with cover 3,” Southeast coach David Crane said. “Their success has been because of their team speed. Even when they get out of position, they make up for it with team speed. But they’re rarely ever misaligned.”

And that speed goes both ways for the Panthers, who use several different players to carry the ball in a wing-T offense that is directed by senior Dominique Wilkins, a first-year starter whose throwing ability has impressed Crane. The potential for big plays means Southeast’s defense will need to shorten its memory in the wake of any mistakes — or risk falling victim again.

“Every offense is going to have a lucky play,” Raiders senior defensive lineman Cristian Perez said. “We’ve just got to not worry about it and move on with the rest of the game.”

Crane said the bye week gave the Raiders time to let some players recover from injury, with defensive linemen Devin Mahan and Jose Ortiz both healthy for tonight’s game. The coach is less sure about, but hopes to have back senior wide receiver Zach Harper, who’s been out of action since suffering a broken collarbone in the second quarter of the season opener.

The Daily Citizen sports editor Larry Fleming and sports writer Marty Kirkland contributed to this story.

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