With the Georgia high school football season two weeks behind the point where it would normally be, Winder-Barrow finds itself in a position it hasn’t been in for more than 25 years: practicing on Thanksgiving week in preparation for a playoff game. In fact, you have to go back to the Bulldoggs’ 11-3, state semifinal season in 1993 to find the last time they played a game after Thanksgiving.
But here the Bulldoggs are after a thrilling 17-14 win at home over Lanier on Friday, Nov. 20, which locked up the fourth and final playoff spot in GHSA Region 8-AAAAAA. Sophomore Ivan Rodriguez knocked a 32-yard field goal attempt through the uprights with 32 seconds left, and a last-ditch 50-yard field goal try by the Longhorns on the final play came up well short, clinching the Bulldoggs their second straight playoff berth and sixth in the last seven seasons.
After struggling mightily in the first half of the regular season, which included a four-game losing streak, the Bulldoggs (5-5) won four out of their final five outings and are playing with a high amount of confidence as they prepare to travel to 10th-ranked Carrollton for the first round of the Class 6A playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27. The Trojans (6-2) are coming off a 23-7 victory that locked up the Region 5 championship.
“I think our players are really excited to still be playing and having this challenge in front of them,” said Winder-Barrow head coach Ed Dudley, who has the Bulldoggs in the playoffs for the second time in his three seasons with the program and will be making his 19th playoff appearance in his 27 seasons as a head coach. “Our guys have worked extremely hard and played great the second half of the year to propel them into the playoffs. I’m very proud of them and the effort they’ve put in, and now we’ve got to go try to pay it off again Friday.”
Carrollton, a traditional powerhouse in high school football in the state with seven state titles and 691 wins (seventh all-time), is making is 30th postseason appearance in the last 31 years, and Dudley is no stranger to the program. He was the Trojans’ defensive coordinator for four seasons before beginning his head coaching career at Buford in 1992, and he was Carrollton’s head coach from 2014-2015.
“They’re a good football team,” Dudley said of the 2020 Trojans. “They’ve got a great squad and they’re the No. 1 seed for a reason.”
Winder-Barrow’s offense will undoubtedly face one of its most daunting tests of the year from a Carrollton defense that is yielding just 14 points per game and held Douglas County to minus-33 yards rushing in the region clincher last week. Four-star senior outside linebacker Chaz Chambliss, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound Georgia commit, headlines the group, while 6-foot-3, 250-pound, three-star defensive end Khristian Zachary is ranked among the top 35 players in the state for the class of 2021 and is committed to Liberty.
“It’s a talented group,” Dudley said. “Their defensive front is big, strong and powerful, they’ve got three great linebackers who play really well together, so the big challenge for us is going to be protecting the quarterback and being able to move the ball consistently.”
The Bulldoggs will counter with an offense that features senior running back J.C Green (1,029 rushing yards, 6.4 yards a carry, nine touchdowns) and has gotten a boost from other backs, including sophomore Aidan Thompson, whose 52-yard run late in the fourth quarter last week set up Rodriguez’s game-winner. Winder-Barrow has also seen its performance in the passing game improve since turning over the starting quarterback position to sophomore Conyer Smith midway through the year. Smith enters Friday’s game with 606 passing yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions with a 59-percent completion rate. Junior Stewart Allen (23 receptions, 406 yards, four touchdowns) and freshman Tre Gaudlock (20 catches, 309 yards, three touchdowns) have been the Bulldoggs’ top two receivers.
“One of Conyer’s big strengths has been his ability to stay cool and stay focused under pressure, and hopefully that’s going to continue Friday,” Dudley said. “Our offensive line has gotten better, and they’re going to need to have one of their best nights.”
And while there has been considerable hype given to Carrollton’s defense, the Bulldoggs have come on strongly in that area the second half of the year and turned in arguably their best overall performance of the year against Lanier. Winder-Barrow intercepted three passes against the Longhorns, including a 64-yard pick-six by senior Andrew Lewis in the third quarter. Junior cornerback Omarious Smith leads the team with six interceptions while twin brother and fellow corner Jamarious Smith has five picks on the year.
The Bulldoggs’ defense, which also forced a fumble deep in their territory that led to the eventual game-winning drive, gave up only one defensive touchdown against Lanier, and that score came on a drive that started at the Winder-Barrow 2-yard line after a short punt from deep in Bulldogg territory and a lengthy return.
The unit is primarily headlined by 6-foot-3, 265-pound, senior defensive end Jacob Merrifield, a three-star Florida Atlantic commit who has continued to be a constant disruptor in opposing backfields. Of Merrifield’s credited 56 tackles for the season, 15 have been for a loss, including one sack. Thompson has had a breakout season at the other defensive end, registering 50 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and a team-leading two sacks. Senior Chandler Maxwell, the team leader in tackles with 97, highlights a talented linebacker corps.
“I’ve been super-proud of our defense and the amazing job our defensive coaches have done of helping that group grow up,” Dudley said. “It’s a good mix of older and younger players who have been good at making opponents turn the ball over. That secondary plays really well together. I think Thompson moving to defensive end has made a huge difference for us. (Junior) Gabe Donnelly has played extremely well all year up front on the inside, and that crew of linebackers has done an outstanding job.”
And the defense will be called on to answer the bell one more time if the Bulldoggs are to have a shot at pulling off the upset. Carrollton averages 27 points per game and has spread the workload around offensively, with junior quarterback James Mccauley leading the charge. Junior Keshawn Ridley and senior Christian Lett are the Trojan’s top backs, and senior Grant Briscoe has been the top receiving target.
“It’s a very balanced offense with both the run and pass game, and they share the ball a lot,” Dudley said. “A lot of times at this level, you go into a game and think if you can just contain this one guy, you’ve got a really good chance, but that’s not the case with this game. Their balance is going to present us with a serious challenge.
“We’re ready to give it a shot. We’re glad to be playing playoff football and we’re looking forward to this one.”