Two years ago, Winder-Barrow’s best season in a quarter-century ended with a 45-17 second-round playoff loss at Harrison High School as, even without star quarterback Justin Fields, the Hoyas proved to be too much for the Bulldoggs to contain.
After a one-year hiatus, the Bulldoggs are back in the postseason and will return to Kennesaw on Friday, Nov. 15, to face yet another explosive Harrison team in the first round of the GHSA Class AAAAAA playoffs. The Bulldoggs (3-6), the No. 4 seed from Region 8, are entering with full intentions of pulling off an upset over the second-ranked Hoyas (10-0), but in order to accomplish that Winder-Barrow coach Ed Dudley knows his team will have to have a better defensive performance than it did in a 61-31 loss to top-ranked Dacula in their regular-season finale Nov. 8.
“It’s a tough draw playing the top two teams back-to-back,” Dudley said. “We’ve seen some good offenses throughout the season, and we know we’ve got to improve a bit and play better to hope to have a chance. That’s a big point of emphasis for us this week at practice. Harrison is a very good team that doesn’t have many weaknesses so we’ve got to come ready to play.”
The Hoyas, the Region 6 champions, have outscored their opponents 407-92 this year, and only one team has stayed within 18 points of them — Region 6 No. 2 seed Allatoona (21-17). And Harrison’s two offensive players that did the most damage against the Bulldoggs two years ago are still around.
Senior running back David Roberts rushed for 135 yards and three touchdowns that night and is averaging more than 8 yards a carry so far this season. Meanwhile, senior quarterback Gavin Hall, who took over midway through the 2017 campaign after a season-ending injury to Fields, has also had a stellar year leading the Shotgun offense. Hall threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns while adding a touchdown on the ground his last outing against Winder-Barrow.
“(Roberts) is definitely their go-to back,” Dudley said. “He’s going to slash and run and does a great job with the football. You’re not going to be able to totally shut him out but the key is to try to slow him down and contain him. The quarterback is a strong passer and they can do that well when they want to, but their top priority, their passion, is to run the football and impose their will.”
It has been an up-and-down season for a Winder-Barrow defense that has allowed just over 35 points a game after having to replace a few key pieces off last year’s team. Senior middle linebacker Nate Allen has again been the leader, registering 99 tackles and tallying five sacks. Junior defensive end Jacob Merrifield, the lone returning starter on the defensive line, has 66 tackles and six sacks, senior safety Carson Jackson has 88 tackles, and junior linebacker Chandler Maxwell has 62 tackles and a pair of sacks despite missing nearly half the season with an ankle injury.
“Nate has been a good leader on that side of football,” Dudley said. “He was probably most upset Friday that we didn’t feel like we played anywhere near as well as we could have. He’s been tremendous and his leadership is really going to be important all week for us if we want to go over there and get a win.”
The Bulldoggs’ offense, meanwhile, has shown the ability to consistently move the ball and comes in averaging 28.7 points a game. Senior dual-threat quarterback Jhaydon Sullivan has been strong in his second year as a starter, throwing for 1,288 yards and nine touchdowns against four interceptions on 92-of-170 passing while adding 705 rushing yards at 4.8 yards a clip and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Senior Brett Landis has caught 47 of Sullivan’s passes for 790 yards and five touchdowns and set a school single-game record against Dacula with nine catches for 226 yards and a pair of scores.
Along with Sullivan, junior running back J.C. Green has been a steady threat out of the backfield, racking 811 yards with an average of 5.4 a carry.
“I’ve been pleased with the offensive production,” Dudley said. “(Offensive coordinator Richard Gillespie) and his staff have done a great job. Jhaydon has really been our bell cow, and it’s pretty much, as he goes, so go the Bulldoggs.”
Winder-Barrow’s offense will get a stiff test in return from a Harrison defense that is allowing fewer than 10 points an outing.
“They’re very strong at the second level,” Dudley said of the Hoyas. “Their linebacker play is outstanding, they’re big up front and they’re fast in the secondary. We’re going to have to attack with multiple players, move it as well as we can and play ball control.
“The bottom line is it’s a very impressive team we’re playing on the road. But we’ve got an opportunity to pull off the upset. I think we’ve got a great never-say-die attitude and hopefully we can sneak up on them.”