By Jason Avery
After nine weeks, Strong’s football season comes down to one game.
Tonight, Strong hosts Bearden in an 8-2A showdown for the league’s final playoff berth.
Game time is set for 7 p.m. from Jerry Burson Field.
The Bulldogs (5-4, 2-4) need a win by more than two points to reach the playoffs after missing the postseason last year.
The Bears (5-4, 3-3), who are coming off of a bye week, would lock up the No. 4 seed with a win.
The last time Bearden visited Strong, the Bulldogs downed the Bears 30-22, and that is something that has been talked about this week.
“It’s been mentioned at certain times,” said Strong coach Greg Anthony. “It’s not something that’s just brought up every day, but in certain situations, we’ve talked about it for a couple of weeks, especially during that down time. They were looking ahead at playing Parkers Chapel and Bearden, and they talked about the chances they thought of winning, and it was brought up. That’s a positive sign for them. It gives them a little confidence.”
But if the Bulldogs are to have history repeat itself from two years ago, they will have to find a way to slow down senior quarterback Tyler Berry, something not many defenses have been able to do.
Berry has completed just under 57 percent of his passes for 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns while throwing six interceptions.
He is also Bearden’s leading rusher with 573 yards and seven touchdowns.
However, the Bears have several playmakers in addition to Berry.
Senior Davarius Hughes averages 24 yards per catch while leading the Bears with 481 yards and eight touchdowns on 20 receptions.
Junior Cohen Word has also caught 20 passes for 234 yards, while senior CamRon Byes has 14 catches for 161 yards.
“Their athleticism is the main thing that stands out,” Anthony said. “Their skill guys are very, very good at every position. Berry is at quarterback, and everything centers around him. He’s going to be the key, but you can’t concentrate solely on him because you’ve got Hughes and some of the other ones out there too that are just as athletic as him. Their skill positions are going to be hard to match up with. I think we’ll match up OK with them up front on both sides, but we’ve got our work cut out for us on the outside.”
When asked to compare Bearden’s receiving core to Parkers Chapel’s, who the Bulldogs squared off with last week, Anthony said the two were very close.
“I just think the ones from Bearden are little bit more explosive than the ones from PC, but I think PC is probably more well-rounded as far as having more of them that you have to guard,” Anthony said. “You have to guard all of Bearden’s, but they’ve got three that are really good that can beat you at any time. After that, there’s not a major drop off, but it’s a little bit different. I think Bearden’s are more explosive, especially running straight down the field. They’ve got more speed, they’ve got more lateral movement, but they’re very close.”
Anthony added that trying to contain Berry will need to be a team effort.
“We may have an extra guy watching him close, but it’s going to be a team effort,” Anthony said. “The defensive ends have got to be able to keep him from getting outside, and then once they do their job, then the other ones have got to be able to fill the inside to keep him from breaking loose. It’s going to take all of them doing their part.”
Last week at Parkers Chapel, quarterback Caleb Jacobs threw four first-half touchdown passes while going 9-of-14 passing for 255 yards.
However, the Bulldogs limited the Trojans’ offense in the second half, holding Parkers Chapel to just one touchdown that came on a short field after the Bulldogs turned the ball over, and Anthony said Strong will use an approach similar to the one from the second half last week against Berry.
“We just made a couple of coverage adjustments on the receivers and freed up another one to help with the run,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t anything major that we did.”
Anthony added that Berry and Jacobs are similar in that both are exceptionally dangerous when they are on the move.
“I think the biggest similarity is whenever they get outside of the pocket, they can create,” Anthony said. “In my opinion, both of them become a bigger threat outside of the pocket than in the pocket because they can beat you with their legs or their arms.”
After narrowly missing a chance to clinch a playoff berth at Parkers Chapel last week, Anthony said his team has regrouped and is ready for tonight’s winner-take-all contest.
“It’s been really good,” Anthony said. “We had a long team meeting and lifted weights on Sunday. I put up on the board all of the different scenarios and what was going to happen here and there. It changes their attitude, and they’re pretty determined to do whatever we need to do to win.”
If the Bulldogs are to reach the postseason, Anthony said his team cannot beat itself.
“One thing we’ve got to do is not turn the ball over. We’ve got to protect it,” Anthony said. “We’ve got to be able to capitalize when we’ve got situations like second-and-short, third-and-short or in the red zone. We’ve got to cut down on penalties and the dumb stuff that has beaten us. We’ve got to play smarter and be more disciplined.”