It was a moment that defined the importance the Ridgeland High School football coaching staff places on Darrell Bridges.
Down by six points and facing a fourth-and-2 with barely more than a minute remaining in last week's Class AAAA state semifinal against second-ranked Marist, Panthers coach Mark Mariakis flip-flopped on which play to call. He burned two precious timeouts before settling on the simplest play among his list of options.
Mariakis' first inclination was to give the ball to Bridges, the Panthers' workhorse. But believing the Marist defense would key on the powerful fullback, Mariakis instead called for Vonn Bell to carry the ball on a speed sweep to the outside. Just before the snap, however, Mariakis called a second consecutive timeout and went back to his initial inclination, calling for Bridges to carry on a dive play up the middle.
The result was a 7-yard gain by the bullish Bridges, giving Ridgeland a new set of downs, and two plays later Bridges took a toss sweep to the left, pulled up behind the line and threw a strike to Shaqualm McCoy for the tying touchdown. Once the Panthers added the extra point, they had earned the right to play for the Class AAAA state championship Saturday at the Georgia Dome against defending champ Sandy Creek.
"With the game on the line, there was no doubt we were going to continue being who we are, a power-run team with Darrell leading the way," Mariakis said. "As coaches we sometimes overthink things or second-guess ourselves, and I was wrestling with that on that fourth-down call. I finally decided that if I was going to sleep well that night, whether we made it or not, I wanted to know we had gone with our best play and the guy who had gotten us that far."
On the Panthers' final possession, they drove 77 yards in 10 plays and Bridges accounted for every yard, also converting a third-and-1 with a 4-yard gain. The only two plays he didn't get the ball in his hands were two incomplete passes to stop the clock.
After carrying eight times for 29 yards in the first half against Marist, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Bridges picked up steam on his 13 second-half carries, gaining 158 yards, and he completed all three of his pass attempts for 110 yards. He accounted for all four Panthers touchdowns, and the team amassed just 77 yards on the 19 plays in which Bridges didn't touch the ball.
"It's really special to me to know that the coaches have that much faith in me to put the ball in my hands that many times and in key situations for us," said Bridges, who converted a second-and-23 with an 89-yard scoring run midway through the fourth quarter to tie the game. "The coaches had said when the playoffs started that they would lean on me more, and that's just what I wanted.
"We have a lot of other weapons, and I have faith that anybody that carries the ball for us can make big plays. But as a senior, I do want the ball in my hands in crunch time, because I believe in my abilities."
Bridges' 2,301 rushing yards are the third-most in Georgia, and he averages 8.9 yards per carry with an amazing 39 touchdowns.
But while he has been the key to the Panthers' wing-T offense and the focal point for opponents, Bridges has been an inexplicable late arrival on college recruiters' radar. The recent playoff run has brought in scouts from Memphis, Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky to go with those who have recruited him since the regular season. which includes Presbyterian, Shorter, Carson-Newman, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Cumberland.
"The biggest recruiting mystery in my 28 years of coaching is why more college scouts haven't been all over this kid," Mariakis said. "He's got the size, strength and speed, his grades are good, he's academically qualified and he's a great kid. I've wondered if it would've made a difference in the way he's perceived if we had called him a tailback instead of fullback.
"I think there was some question about his speed because he ran a 4.6 at some camps, but the thing about him is he doesn't lose a step in pads. You can watch highlights of every run he's made this year and you won't find anybody catching him from behind. A coach from Ohio State who saw him made a great point when he said that Darrell has faster game speed than track speed. That's accurate."
Bridges transferred to Ridgeland from Red Bank before his junior season, hoping for a bigger offensive role. As a fullback in Red Bank's offense, Bridges had been used mostly as a blocker, a job that he admitted became tiresome.
"I might as well set this straight now, because a lot of people have made up their own stories," Bridges said. "I was real good friends with the Bowman family, and those guys said they loved playing for Coach Mariakis at Ridgeland. So I made a decision that if I was going to get a chance to show what I could do with the ball in my hands, I needed to go somewhere else, and Ridgeland sounded like a good fit.
"Looking back on it now, I'm glad I made that decision. It was the right thing for me, and hopefully the people at Ridgeland are as glad I'm here as I am to be here."
When Bridges arrived, the backfield was set, but the quarterback position was unsettled, so he began taking snaps and was becoming a dual threat at the position. Midway through the 2011 season Mariakis kicked 10 players off the team, opening a starting spot at fullback, and Bridges volunteered to make the position switch, moving a few steps deeper into the backfield and becoming the primary weapon.
In seven games at fullback in 2011, Bridges ran for more than 1,400 yards, gaining the confidence of the staff that they could build the offense around his physical style this season.
"We have speed on the outside that allows us to be a finesse team at times, mostly as a change of pace," Mariakis said. "But our offense is centered around Darrell, and we want to be a physical team. Defenses do not like taking that pounding from him for four quarters. Between our big offensive line and Darrell coming at them, you can tell it starts to demoralize defensive players.
"They get tired of coming up and taking on a guy with his size, and that's usually when you see him start to break tackles and rip off long runs in the second half. That's what we're counting on."