Mark Mariakis had seen enough. After Ridgeland's offense had dabbled with balance by — gasp! — attempting a forward pass in the early stages of last week's state quarterfinal game, the Panthers coach gave a very direct order from the sideline.
"Just line up and pound it right at them," Mariakis said through the headset after the first series. "Let's see if they can stop it."
The Mary Persons defense fared about as well as the previous 12 opponents at stopping Ridgeland's bruising wing-T. The Panthers rolled up 417 rushing yards on 57 punishing carries, attempting just one more pass after the opening series, and posted a 31-point victory. Tonight they host second-ranked Marist (12-1) in a Georgia Class AAAA semifinal.
These Panthers already have gone further than any previous team in program history, featuring an offense that averages 363 rushing yards per game. To put it bluntly, Ridgeland's offensive linemen view a pass as something to try when you're just not man enough to play real football.
"We take a lot of pride in being able to just put the game on our shoulders and make the way for our backs to take over," said senior strong tackle Grady Matthews, who at 6-foot-3, 335 pounds is by far the most massive of a group that otherwise relies more on quickness and leverage than size.
Matthews is one of the two key transfers, along with senior strong guard Gannon Hampton (6-0, 290), among the linemen who spent the summer getting their timing down to be able to work fluidly together. So much about the wing-T offense is predicated on the linemen's ability to move quickly around one another to pull or trap defenders, and the group spent most summer mornings working on that timing before ending each day with sprints to be ready for the extra snaps they expected to play during the postseason.
Along with Hampton and Matthews, Ridgeland's ironmen in the line include junior tight end Jermaine Conyers (6-3, 285), junior left tackle Joshua Skates (5-11, 245), senior left guard Dustin Davis (6-1, 190) and sophomore center P.J. Gardner (6-0, 245). That group played all 59 offensive snaps last week and have paved the way for fullback Darrell Bridges to gain more than 2,200 yards, while Vonn Bell has added 1,050, Noah Cooper 780 and Shaqualm McCoy 550.
"Those guys are outstanding," Bell said. "They all grade out at over 88 percent on their blocking assignments about every week, and they make our jobs as backs a lot easier for sure. We should be able to run for a lot of yards with the way they block."
And while they have accepted the fact that they don't get as much attention from fans or media, each of those linemen know the importance of their role in getting this far, and if the team continues past tonight.
"When our backs score, it shows how well we're doing our job," Hampton said. "People that know football know what we do. And as long as we're winning and still playing, that's good enough."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...