Halfway through their 2019 football schedule, the Ridgeland Panthers were in crisis mode.
Sitting at 1-4 and coming off a 27-16 home loss to GHSA Region 6-AAAA rival Northwest Whitfield in early October — a game in which the offense was manhandled by the Bruins — first-year head coach Kip Klein and his staff decided to make some changes.
The running game, which has been dominant while helping the program put together what is now a run of seven region championships in 12 seasons, was struggling. This happened despite the presence of Jordan Blackwell, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, speedy options in Terrance and Torrance Roberts and a large but young offensive line.
Klein, a former offensive lineman, decided to implement a zone blocking scheme. In their next five games, all wins, the Panthers produced 55, 42, 41, 31 and 55 points, propelling them to the region title and home-field advantage for the start of the state playoffs Friday night. The Panthers will host Madison County (4-6), the No. 4 seed from Region 8.
"Changing the blocking scheme allowed us to use our linemen's athleticism more," Klein said. "Since we made the change, they are really helping us move the ball. Our (first-string) quarterback (Nathan Carver) has been out most of the season with injury, so we're starting a freshman, which has limited what we can do offensively.
"With the run game going strong now, the confidence is back."
Blackwell and Terrance Roberts combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards during the regular season and figure to carry the ball 20 or so times apiece each game behind a line that includes sophomore tackles Jacob Klein (6-foot-6, 275 pounds) and Logan Montgomery (6-6, 250) as well as senior Logan Godfrey (6-2, 265).
This game will be a battle of run-heavy offenses as the Red Raiders also rely on their ground game in a triple-option attack. Defending against it will be difficult, Klein said, because the Panthers haven't seen it much this season.
"Everyone used to run it, or some version of it, so you practiced against it each week," Klein said. "It's amazing now. We have to teach the kids how to attack it now, like telling our defensive linemen you have to take the fullback, not the quarterback. We've got three guys on the dive, two on each side for the quarterback and two for the pitch.
"You try to do too much and they will kill you. It's a good matchup for us in that they don't pass, but it's a bad matchup if we can't stop them and let them go on long drives."
THIS WEEK’S SCHEDULE
Friday, Nov. 15, 2019
GHSA playoffs, first round
All kickoffs 7:30 p.m.
Class A public
Trion (5-5) at Commerce (8-2)
Chattooga (5-5) at Callaway (9-1)
Monroe Area (7-3) at North Murray (9-1)
Morgan County (7-3) at Calhoun (9-1)
Sonoraville (5-5) at Jefferson (8-1)
Madison County (4-6) at Ridgeland (6-4)
St. Pius X (5-5) at Heritage (8-2)
Northwest Whitfield (7-3) at Oconee County (9-1)
Dalton (7-3) at Dacula (10-0)
In other first-round matchups involving local teams, Georgia's leading rusher, Jahmyr Gibbs (2,358 yards, 39 touchdowns), leads Dalton (7-3) against the state's top-ranked Class AAAAAA team, Dacula (10-0), which has allowed less than 100 rushing yards per game.
In Class AAAA, Region 6 runner-up Heritage (8-2) has a similar challenge to Ridgeland in trying to stop the potent ground game of St. Pius X (5-5) at Sims Field, while Northwest (7-3) travels to Region 8 champion Oconee County (9-1).
In Class AAA, Region 6 champion North Murray and electric quarterback Ladd McConkey welcome a tough No. 4 seed to Chatsworth in Monroe Area (7-3). The Purple Hurricanes have their own dynamic quarterback in Selatian Slaughter Jr., who has 23 touchdowns and is just shy of 2,200 total yards this season.
Calhoun (9-1), which hosts Morgan County (7-3), is playing its best football of the season. The Region 6 runner-up has won six straight games, outscoring its opponents a whopping 240-44 during the run. Sonoraville (5-5), the region's No. 4 seed, plays at Region 8 champ Jefferson (8-1).
In Class AA, Region 7's Chattooga (5-5) travels to Region 5 champion Callaway (9-1), which has averaged more than 40 points per game. In Class A public, No. 23 seed Trion (5-5) goes on the road to face No. 10 Commerce (8-2).
Christian Heritage, as the No. 8 overall seed in the Class A private playoffs, earned a first-round bye. Next week the Lions will host the winner of First Presbyterian Day and Wesleyan.