From here on out, each game Jackson County football game just means a bit more. The Panthers jump into Region 8-AAAAA play with a road trip to Walnut Grove hoping to begin their march to the AAAAA State Playoffs.
The Panthers are coming off a resilient performance against Franklin County in which they erased a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 20-19. The comeback came on the heels of a turbulent third quarter in which Jackson County allowed a pair of explosive touchdowns on offense and special teams.
"I'm extremely proud, no question," said head coach Rich McWhorter. "Like I told them, this is nothing. We don't want to rest on this, we want to build on it. I'm extremely proud of the effort. We've been having a lot of good weeks of practice, things are coming together really well. Our group has been showing a lot of maturity.
"I can't say enough about the job our coaching staff has done also. They've done a tremendous job also and I'm proud of what they've been doing."
To defeat the Warriors, the Panthers need an answer for their balanced offense. Quarterback Ashton Adams is 20-of-42 passing this year with 241 yards. Most of his passes go to tenacious receiver Zackery Ford. Despite being a wide receiver, Ford is a physical runner capable of grinding out every yard available after a catch. Ford leads Walnut Grove with seven catches for 120 yards.
On the ground, Walnut Grove has a one-two punch with Nolan Yancey and Skyler Jones. Both have carried the rock 27 times through the first three games, Yancey has 104 yards and Jones has 87. Jones adds three catches for 18 yards as well and both running backs have a touchdown.
Unfortunately for Walnut Grove, those are the teams’ only touchdowns this season. The Warriors are 1-2 with just 20 total points to their name. Their leading scorer is kicker Brendan Hamrick with seven points. Hamrick is a perfect 2-of-2 on field goals including a 36-yard attempt in Walnut Grove’s 13-6 win over Social Circle on Friday.
Adams has also thrown four interceptions this season, including two in the 24-7 season-opening loss to Miller Grove. Walnut Grove also has a shutout loss to Monroe Area on its record.
“From a scheme point of view, they’re just like us on both sides of the ball,” McWhorter said. “Offensively, defensively, we both do the same sort of things. Offensively, what I noticed is that they don’t make mistakes. Sure, they haven’t put a bunch of points on the board, but they don’t get themselves in bad situations.
“I think a lot of that is because they’re so well-coached on the offensive side of the ball. They’re not going to make mistakes for you. Defensively, we’re going to have to be in a position and do the things that we need to do, that all defenses have to do. We have to continue to work on tackling and fundamentals. Our staff does a good job having our guys do that.”
The Warriors’ defense hasn’t fared much better, but last Friday was their best outing. Walnut Grove has allowed 65 points this year, but 59 of those points came in the first two games of the season. Walnut Grove was vulnerable to Monroe Area’s rushing attack as it allowed 131 yards to tailback Alan Jones, while quarterback Selatian Slaughter Jr. added 64 yards.
However, McWhorter looks beyond the numbers and sees a Walnut Grove defense with a fantastic defensive line.
“I’ll tell you, their defensive line is going to be the best we’ve seen thus far,” he said. “They are a tremendous group defensively. They’re solid, haven’t given up a lot of points either. For them to shut Social Circle down like they did is a great job for their defense.
“The strength of our football team is our offensive line and defensive line. No question, that’s the strength of our football team. They’re going to have to play their best for us to have a chance to get this one.”
Jackson County will aim to attack Walnut Grove much the same way with Trey Ransom already at 395 yards through the Panthers’ first three outings. MJ Spurlin, if healthy, will also receive a chunk of carries against the Warriors.
Jackson County at Walnut Grove
Who: Jackson County at Walnut Grove
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Records: Jackson County 2-1; Walnut Grove 1-2
Coaches: Rich McWhorter, Jackson County (third season at Jackson County, 9-14; 32nd season overall, 297-93-2); Robert Andrews, Walnut Grove (fourth season at Walnut Grove, 6-27; seventh season overall, 20-46)
What else: Walnut Grove is one of the 10 programs Jackson County leads the all-time series against. The Panthers took the series lead 2-1 with last year’s 20-0 victory at home. Jackson County won the first meeting in the series 21-3 all the way back in 2010. The Warriors defeated the Panthers 37-0 in 2011… Walton County has not been kind to the Panthers. In 19 games played within Walton County, the Panthers are just 2-16-1. The only wins came against Loganville in 1992 and 1986. The tie was against Social Circle in 1987. Overall, Jackson County has lost its last 10 games in Walton County.