SWEET WATER — The Bulldogs have been here before. The territory is as familiar as the opponent. And for Sweet Water, the road to Birmingham goes through Brantley just as it did in 2005.
“In 2005, we lost to Brantley in the second round,” junior tailback Johnny Lockett said. That was the last time the Bulldogs lost a playoff game. It was also the last time Sweet Water lost to a 1A team. That classification winning streak has lasted 32 games.
“We’ve been wanting to play them for three years. And they’ve been talking about how this is their state championship game against Sweet Water. So everybody is just waiting on 7 (p.m. Friday night when the teams kickoff).”
The magnitude of the the matchup with 1A’s No. 2 team has reportedly brought a renewed vigor to Bulldog practices this week.
“We’ve been really focused,” Sweet Water head coach Stacy Luker said. “Brantley will focus you. They’ll make you play good. Our kids know them and respect them.”
“It’s just stay focused and keep working hard. Accept the challenge,” senior quarterback Damaraquis Wiliams said. “I want it so bad. It’s revenge. That’s all.”
While the motivation is certainly in place for the defending champion Bulldogs, the task at hand includes finding a way to limit a running back, Anthony Gulley, who Luker regards as the best his team has faced in quite some time.
“He can change a game at anytime,” Luker said of Brantley’s star back. “Gulley is one step away from scoring every time.”
The Brantley back has racked up 1,168 yards on only 58 carries this season while missing three games due to injury. That translates to 20 yards per rushing attempt. Luker understands just how disciplined his defense will need to be in order to contain Gulley.
“They could run 45 plays. You could do right on 42 of them,” Luker said. “(Gulley) could hit three long ones and you could get beat 21-20.”
Still, as mindful as he is of Gulley’s big play capability, Luker knows his team cannot key entirely on the game-breaking back.
“Opposite of him, they’ve got another kid, Devante Porter, who could burn a hole in the wind,” Luker said. “He can strike from anywhere on the field.”
Armed with the understanding that one missed assignment could spring Gulley or Porter and alter the landscape of the contest, the Bulldog defense has knows it will be called on to provide one of its trademark efforts.
“If they can’t score, they can’t win,” Williams, who also lines up at corner, said of the importance of the emphasis placed on the Bulldog defensive effort.
“They try to make you make a play in space on them and that’s now always easy,” Luker said of Brantley. “They make you do a lot of things right defensively.”
Sweet Water will counter the Brantley ground game with a defense that has allowed only 7.3 points and 88.2 yards per game this season. Included in those numbers is a run defense that has yielded less than one yard per carry.
And while Gulley, who is rumored to have received a scholarship offer from Auburn, poses a threat from anywhere on the field, Sweet Water has its own such back in Lockett.
The junior has amassed 1,570 yards and 23 touchdowns out of the Sweet Water backfield while averaging 11.4 yards per carry. Conversely, the speedster has taken an eye-popping four kickoffs the distance on the season.
Moreover, Lockett is only part of a stable of backs that have combined for 59 touchdown runs on the season.
Brantley made its appointment with the Bulldogs by besting Marengo 28-14 in the opening round of the playoffs before dispatching of J.U. Blacksher 49-16.
Conversely, the Bulldogs rebounded from a 28-21 loss against Leroy at the end of the regular season to score a 49-0 win over Geneva County in the first round and a 48-0 win over McIntosh a week later.
“I think it was the best thing that could have happened to this team,” Lockett said of the loss to Leroy. “Instead of us feeling like we were invincible, it made us go back and have to work harder and get ready.”
“There’s always room to get better,” Luker said. “And you can get better even this late. The things we see on film are definitely correctable mistakes, but they are full-speed mistakes, which is good.”
The Bulldogs know that the team which best minimizes its mistakes Friday night will likely advance to a semi-final round contest next week.
“They’re just well-coached, well-disciplined. They know how to win,” Luker said of Brantley. “They’re no stranger to where they are at right now.”
“I think it’s going to be a good game,” Lockett said. “It’s two traditional teams that always make it far in the playoffs.”