THOMASVILLE – The entire season, 14 straight wins, 4,296 yards of offense, 602 total tackles and 561 total points all comes down to Tuesday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For the first time since 2002, the Thomas County Central Yellow Jackets will be playing for a Georgia AAAAAA state championship.
The Yellow Jackets will take on the Woodward Academy War Eagles, who are making their first championship game appearance since 1980. While both the Yellow Jackets and the War Eagles have excellent offenses, this is destined to be a knock down, drag out defensive battle. Both Central and Woodward have top three defenses in 6A with TCC’s defense coming in at number one and Woodward’s sitting at three in points allowed per game.
For Central’s defense, they will have to deal with an interesting passing game. The War Eagles have a pair of solid quarterbacks in Senior Griffin Marshall and junior Landon Walker. Each have over 1,100 passing yards this season and have 13 touchdowns a piece.
Marshall received most of the snaps early in the season, but Walker’s breakout game came against Lovejoy. Marshall didn’t play in that game and missed several more, while Walker led Woodward to a 31-7 victory over the Wildcats, throwing for over 100 for the first time in the season. Marshall returned to action later in the season against Mundy’s Mill, but Walker has continued to receive the majority of the snaps.
Central’s best bet against the War Eagles passing threat is taking away their favorite target, Wake Forest commit Ben Grice. Grice currently averages 59.6 receiving yards per game and has caught ten touchdowns on the season.
Woodward has, however, moved away from the pass game in the playoffs, significantly reducing their pass attempts in favor of the run. They especially did this in the first three rounds of the playoffs, averaging just eight completions in those three games with just two passing touchdowns. In comparison, they ran the ball an average of 32 times per game. They did break free of that in their last contest against Douglas. That, however, may have been done out of necessity as Woodward went down early and required a come back win that saw them score 24 unanswered points. Walker completed 15 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns in that game.
What Central’s defense needs to do is take Grice away from Woodward and force the War Eagles to run the ball. The Yellow Jacket’s run defense has been elite all year behind their impressive and disruptive d-line, amassing 93 tackles for a loss this year. Central has arguably had the best run defense in the state this year. In games where opposing teams stats were reported, Central held eight out of ten opponents under 100 rushing yards. Central’s defense can win this game for them by taking away Woodward’s top receiver and dominating the line of scrimmage.
On the other side of the ball, Woodward’s defense is also elite, allowing just 11.3 points per game. Though, they have showed some flaws in the playoffs against the pass game. Woodward held Evans to just 25 passing yards and forced an interception in round one, but since then they have allowed Houston County 211 yards in the air, Gainesville recorded 163 and Douglas lit the War Eagles up for a staggering 325 passing yards. They also allowed all three of those teams a passing touchdown.
There is no doubt the Yellow Jackets have the talent and the ability to do the same. Quarterback Jaylen Johnson has thrown for over 2,000 yards this season and has throw 21 touchdowns as opposed to just six interceptions, according to MaxPreps. Combine that with the elite receiving core led by Malachi Thomas and Tre’von Pringle and this is a passing game that has the opportunity to take over this game.
The biggest “X factor” in this contest, however, could be the kicking game. Both Central and Woodward have an excellent kicking game. Drew Reneau already has a game-winning field goal in these playoffs and, in a defensive battle like this, the field goal unit could be the difference between a state championship and a disappointing bus ride home.
Thomas County Central and Woodward Academy will meet for the state title on Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.