Linden and A.L. Johnson meet in Game of the Week

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 20, 2005

For the A.L. Johnson Eagles and Linden Patriots, the 2005 playoffs are going to begin a couple of weeks early.

With American Christian, Sweet Water, and John Essex having clinched the first three playoff spots out of Class 1A Region 4, the fourth playoff team will be decided by one game: Linden at Johnson, Friday night at 7 p.m. in Thomaston, with the victor moving on to the postseason and the loser’s 2005 football season done after next week.

“It’s going to be a battle,” says Linden head coach Luther Davis. “They’re a rival. The winner goes, the loser stays.”

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A.L. Johnson head coach Mose Jones agrees that the game between the two county rivals should have even more juice than usual.

“Linden brings out the best in us and we bring out the best in them,” he says. “This time, the loser goes home. It’s special.”

Both coaches say the significance of the game has brought the best out of their teams in practice this week.

“It’s been different. They’re concentrating more. We’ve executed better on offense,” says Davis.

“The intensity this week has been real high,” says Jones. “We’re pretty excited just to have the opportunity to go to the playoffs.”

Both teams are coming into the game with momentum after lopsided wins last week. The Eagles won their second straight, 30-0 on the road over Sunshine, behind a pair of rushing scores from quarterback Michael McGhee.

Linden, meanwhile, bounced back from the previous week’s loss to ACA by pounding Carrollton 42-6. Christopher Martin scored a pair of first-half touchdowns and Jared Jackson hit Marcus Catlin with a 55-yard touchdown strike as the Patriots cruised.

For Johnson, the two-game winning streak has gone a long way towards restoring the Eagles’ confidence after several rocky performances in mid-season.

“We got off to a good start and then stumbled a little in the middle of the season,” Jones says. “Now we’re coming back around. We’re telling them we’re the same team we were at the beginning of the season.”

The biggest difference for the Eagles the last two weeks, Jones says, is that his team is finally healthy again after being “banged up” after the team’s 44-6 loss to ACA on Oct. 9. While tight end Keyon Fritts is out for the season, starting tailback Brandon Fritts is one of several Eagles who have returned after missing several games through injury.

“The defense has picked up some and the kicking game has gotten better,” Jones says of the improvement, “but the main thing is we’ve gotten healthy.”

For the Eagles to keep their win streak going, they’ll need to keep a powerful Linden running game in check. It won’t be easy against a sizable offensive line anchored by right tackle Jonathan Tate, tight end Catlin, and center Jon Anthony. And when the Patriots do open a hole, any member of the Patriot backfield-quarterback Darnell Richardson, fullbacks Carlos Tate or Marvin Richardson, or tailback Martin-have the talent to exploit it.

“They have a real big offensive line. They’re really good and yeah, it’s a concern of mine,” Jones says. “We just have to play good hard-nosed defense…put a lot of people around the ball.”

For his part, Davis says a major part of moving the ball will be countering the aggressive, risk-taking Johnson defense.

“They like to blitz. We know they’re going to come after us,” he says. “The QB has to read that. We have to contain it and pick it up.”

Who exactly the quarterback will be on any given Linden snap may change, however. Davis says Richardson will remain the starter for now but Jackson stepped in to provide the Patriots with a spark against John Essex when Richardson “got a little rattled” and has continued to see action.

“He’s been throwing the ball real good,” Davis says. “It depends on practice. We’ll probably play him a lot this week.”

When Linden is on defense, Davis says, the key is stopping Johnson’s ability to get wide on screens and sweeps with McGhee, Fritts, and players like Santan Ruffin and LaDarius Agee.

“We have to pursue the ball, have everybody assigned to man. Hopefully we’ll know our coverages and can stop it,” he says.

Another boost for Johnson will be playing in Thomaston, where the Eagles struggled in 2004 but have yet to lose in four games in 2005.

“We kind of turned it around from last season,” Jones says. “We’re playing a lot better this year at home.”

Jones will take any edge he can get in a game in which the stakes-not only the chance to play in the postseason, but the chance for the team to make a name for itself in them-is on the line.

“If we are able by the grace of God to get into the playoffs,” Jones says, “we should be able to make some noise.”