Last year, Jackson County had the ball late at Franklin County trailing 14-13 and wasn’t able to reach the end zone. In 2019, the Panthers trailed 23-16 with the ball at the end and couldn’t score a game-tying touchdown.

Jackson County head coach Rich McWhorter knows the 2021 matchup could come down to the same situation even though the Lions are under new leadership. New head coach Parker Martin is off to a 2-0 start in Carnesville with wins over Lumpkin County (20-6) and East Hall (38-21). McWhorter sees the 2021 Franklin County squad as a physical unit, much like the one that finished 7-3 last year with coach Pail Sutherland.

“They’ll hit you with the run game at all points of attack, plus the counter game and they throw well enough to give you a problem there,” he said. “Defensively they’re very solid up front. [They run a] similar type look to what we’ve been getting. They’re a very solid team… They pride themselves on their physicality and how tough they are.

“That’s what we’ve been going over with our guys. This is a game that’s usually won by the toughest team. We need to be tough enough to withstand.”

The biggest change Martin made is on offense. The Lions now run an offset I-formation offense with mobile quarterback Chris Goode under-center. His athleticism turns what’s typically a two-back offense into essentially a three-back offense. He’s currently third on the team with 101 yards on 15 carries with one touchdown. Goode adds 106 yards with one touchdown on 9-of-14 attempts with his arm.

Another contributor in the running game is fullback Deven Banks who has 17 carries for 125 yards with a score. However, the offense puts most of its faith in tailback Micah Blackwell. The senior already has 298 rushing yards and 26 receiving yards, and he leads the Lions with four touchdowns. Stopping him is integral to slowing down Franklin County’s offense.

McWhorter believes his defense is capable of that. The unit is coming off an impressive showing at Stephens County. Ultimately, mistakes in all three phases cost Jackson County the game, but the defense put the team in a position to win.

“Our defense is playing very well,” he said. “We’re extremely well-coached, Tyson Baxter and our defensive coaches have done a tremendous job. Offensively we’ve got to take advantage of each and every possession we have, hopefully, finish with an extra point or at least with a field goal.

“We cannot make mistakes. Last week we got behind the chains a few times. I don’t care what level of football you’re watching, when you’re behind the chains it’s tough.”

Stopping Franklin County’s offense is only half the battle because the Lions are only allowing 13.5 points per game. They have sure tacklers at each level of the defense, but leading in that area are defensive lineman Keylan Rutledge and defensive back Dee Oliver. The two combine for 23 tackles.

The Panthers might also not be at 100-percent Friday night. Backup running back MJ Spurlin was considered questionable by McWhorter early in the week. Spurlin suffered a hip pointer last week against Stephens County.

Starting running back Tre Ransom is off to a hot start with 268 yards of offense, but he’s a two-way player and the coaches want to find times to rest him. Spurlin being healthy allows Jackson County to insert a different running back without making compromises on offense.

Franklin County at Jackson County

Who: Franklin County at Jackson County (Panther Stadium)

When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Records: Jackson County 1-1; Franklin County 2-0

Coaches: Rich McWhorter, Jackson County (third season at Jackson County, 8-14; 32nd season overall, 296-93-2); Parker Martin, Franklin County (first year at Franklin County, 2-0)

What else: Friday will be the 18th meeting all-time between the Panthers and Lions. The first game between the two took place in 1992. Franklin County won 8-7 in penetration overtime. The win was the difference-maker in the battle for the Region 8-AA East Championship… 11 of the 17 meetings have been decided by two scores or less, eight were decided by just one score… 2020 was the first time Jackson County and Franklin County met as non-region opponents.

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