The last week of the regular football season boils down to a pretty simple reality for Commerce on Friday.
“If we don’t win, we’re done,” coach Marvin Justice said.
The Tigers are expected to clinch the final playoff spot against Social Circle, a team that four region opponents have outscored by a combined 134 points. The Redskins’ (1-8, 1-4) singular win happened as a result of an Athens Christian forfeit. (The GHSA ruled one of its athletes played despite an administrative gaff that caused his ineligibility.)
Commerce (3-6, 2-3) has struggled in recent weeks as it faced another daunting stretch in a schedule Justice referred to as one of the most difficult in Class A.
The Tigers lost to Athens Academy and region champion, Prince Avenue, before falling to No. 2 seed George Walton, 24-14, in Monroe last Friday. The Spartans appear to have control of the No. 3 playoff spot.
“When you’re 3-6 you wish it was different. But our kids also know that if they played the region schedule that every team in our region plays, we feel like instead of 3-6 we’d be 6-3,” Justice said. “We haven’t had the luxury of playing their schedules.”
Regardless, a win Friday on senior night in Commerce will go a long way to mend the hurt.
“Keeping our playoff streak alive,” the coach said, referencing a nearly 15-year-old streak. “It is real important to them.”
As with previous games, turnovers proved a key statistic in the team’s most recent loss.
Commerce opened the game determined. The Tigers, led by quarterback Cody Streetman, moved 70 yards to the end zone during a 16-play drive that lasted seven minutes.
George Walton countered and it seemed that halftime would end 7-7, at the least. But Commerce, after stalling the Bulldogs offense, fumbled the ball at its own 28-yard line with a couple minutes left to play in the half. The Bulldogs, led by quarterback Hunter Rice, capitalized to go ahead 14-7.
“Turnovers in the games that we’ve lost, they’ve been a major problem for us and they were Friday night also,” Justice said.
He referenced a statistic presented to him by Commerce statistician Jeff Prickett. In the last four years, Tiger teams that give up one or less turnovers win 90 percent of the time. Commerce lost the ball four times last Friday.
“Our kids played hard. You can’t fault the kids when we’re trying to make plays,” Justice said. “It’s frustrating, but at he same time I know they are playing hard and trying to make plays.”
He pointed out two examples that demonstrate the teams’ effort, in particular. The first related to the effective two-minute drill and second-half passing display that helped Commerce narrow the gap by another touchdown.
Garrett Wilson caught three passes for 59 yards and Drew Whitfield grabbed three for 51 yards. Ninety-seven of Cody Streetman’s 110 total passing yards came in the second half.
Streetman was responsible for both touchdowns with short runs, thanks in part to ball carriers Marquavius Little, who ran 11 times for 20 yards and Chance McClure, who added 15 yards on five carries.
Justice’s second example of tenacity included senior Jake Vaughn. The senior returned despite a painful knee injury that likely will require surgery after the season.
“It is the type of injury that him playing on it will not damage it further. But it was really painful for him to play. I was real proud to see him fight through that injury,” Justice said. “It showed a lot of courage and commitment to his teammates.”
Vaughn is not expected to play on Friday.
“I thought we played real hard Friday night gave, it was a real effort. They never quit. It would’ve been real easy to throw in the towel,” Justice said. “With the tradition Commerce has, people want to beat you. I tell them that all the time.”
On Friday, Justice said it’s Commerce’s turn.
“If we win we keep playing,” Justice said. “Playoffs really start for us this week.”