TUNNEL HILL, Ga. — If Heritage football coach E.K. Slaughter were a chef, he would be wise to guard the recipe that has carried his team to a 7-0 start this season.
Though there have been few secrets in the process, the ingredients have been the same each week: a large dose of dominating, ball-hawking defense; a slice of elite outside playmakers on offense; and a pinch of game-turning special teams.
All three were on display again Friday night as the Generals won 44-21 at Northwest Whitfield after racing out to a 44-7 lead. Heritage, which improved to 3-0 in Region 6-AAAA, will host fellow league unbeaten Ridgeland next week in a first-place showdown.
"When you're playing well in all three phases of the game and the kids are as hungry as these guys are, you're going to have games that mean something like next week," Slaughter said. "The key has been what Coach (Jeremy) New has done with this defense. He's put together the most dominant defense I've been around, and they again showed out tonight."
The Generals, led by linebackers Zaine Burton, Jeffrey Curtis and Hank Weldon, as well as defensive backs Ryan Carter and Luke Grant, held the Bruins to a paltry 19 rushing yards on 28 carries. Nearly the same Heritage personnel allowed more than 300 yards on the ground in last year's loss to Northwest.
It didn't help the Buins' cause that star quarterback Luke Shiflett did not play in the second half after suffering a leg injury just before halftime. But even with the Middle Tennessee State University recruit in the game, they managed just 124 yards, with 80 coming on one play.
"We have pretty much the same team as last year on defense, and we really take pride in what we do and how much we've improved," said Grant, a senior who added 71 yards on seven catches, including two touchdowns. "We wanted to come out and make a statement, and we came out strong.
"We're looking forward to playing Ridgeland next week."
Heritage went 96 yards on its second drive for the game's first points, with quarterback Blake Bryan — he finished 17-for-24 passing for 225 yards and three touchdowns — hitting Grant, Carter and C.J. Shackleford with four consecutive passes down to the 27. Three plays later, Carter took a direct snap and raced around the left end to score.
Early in the second quarter, Burton and Weldon combined to sack Shiflett, forcing a fumble that Ridge Perkins recovered at the Northwest 15. Bryan and Grant made the Bruins pay quickly on a screen pass that went to the end zone.
Now rolling, Heritage forced a punt and went 60 yards in 11 plays. The drive appeared to stall at the 7, but Slaughter called for a fake field goal and holder Brody Campbell hit Johnathan Hickman for a touchdown.
Northwest got a little life when Dominique Sistrunk took a short pass and, after bobbling the ball, outraced the Heritage defense 80 yards to cut the lead to 28-7 at halftime.
The momentum quickly faded after a lengthy homecoming halftime when Sistrunk fumbled on consecutive plays as he and new quarterback Matthew Redmond had trouble with handoffs. The second fumble was recovered by Curtis, and five plays later, on fourth-and-16, Bryan hit Carter for a 22-yard touchdown.
Carter finished with seven catches for 113 yards.
Curtis later returned a fumble 33 yards for a score, the sixth time in seven games the Heritage defense has scored points.
"It's crazy to think we are in this position from where we started four years ago," Slaughter said. "The guys have really earned this."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.