WITH four games remaining, Jackson County finds itself in a position it hasn’t been in for perhaps 20 years — in contention.
The Panthers (4-2, 2-1) are in the middle of the state playoff hunt as they currently occupy the no. 4 spot in Region 8-AAA. The top four teams advance to state.
Jackson County, which hasn’t advanced to the postseason since 1992, faces Hart County Friday on the road at 7:30 p.m. in a game that could go a long way in determining the Panthers’ playoff possibilities.
“I told our kids today that they’ve played well enough to make this a big game,” coach Benji Harrison said. “They’ve played well enough to make this a really important game for us. It’s an important game for them.”
Jackson County is off to its best start in two decades, moving to 4-2 Oct. 5 with a 32-29 win over Franklin County.
Kyle Daniel threw for four touchdowns and 395 yards in the victory. Ben Brissey and Xavier Harper both had over 100 yards receiving and Dustin Scott finished with 150 yards on the ground.
The Panthers then had the past week off, which allowed the team to move past the big win and get ready for Hart County.
“I thought it allowed us an opportunity last week to really focus on ourselves and some mistakes we’ve been making and to get those corrected before you really turn all your focus to Hart,” Harrison said.
Hart County (3-3, 3-0) is also a team on a roll, having won three straight games to put itself into a three-way tie for first place in Region 8-AAA.
The Bulldogs are headlined by dual-threat quarterback Dakota Mitchell, who has thrown for over 1,000 yards and rushed for nearly 500.
Harrison said Mitchell doesn’t just tuck the ball and run. “He extends the play, runs around, gets our DBs to come up and then he can throw over the top of you,” Harrison said.
The Bulldogs feature an array of talented wide receivers, including Jared Scotland and freshman Anthony Turner. Harrison said Hart County can utilize four-receiver sets — any one of which can score from anywhere on the field.
“If they catch it, you’ve got to tackle them,” Harrison said. “You’ve got to stay away from giving them the big play or at least limit the number of big plays.”
Hart County, which has rebounded from an 0-3 start, is averaging 32.7 points a contest and 46.5 a game in their last four meetings.
“They’re really explosive,” Harrison said. “I know all those coaches over there and they’re doing a good job with them. They’re getting their athletes out in space and finding ways to get the ball to them really quick.”
Defensively, Jackson County will face the same problem — speed — with Harrison pointing to players like cornerback Dontravious Shiflet.
“Our biggest challenge against their defense is overall team speed,” he said. “We’ve got to be really precise with our routes. We’ve got to be physical.”
Harrison said the key to playing a team like Hart County — one that can overwhelm an opponent early with its speed — is to get off to a fast start.
“Hart County is a team that you’ve got to let them know that you can play with them early,” Harrison said. “That first quarter is very important — not letting them big-play you and get way ahead.”
While this is certainly a big game, it is not a make-or-break game for the Panthers in determining their postseason fate.
“We don’t put all the pressure in the world (on ourselves) going into this game,” Harrison said. “We’ve got four games and we’ve still got opportunities to control our own deal.”