Prep Football: Newnan faced with tackling improved LaGrange lineupBy CHRIS GOLTERMANN
If you'd have told Newnan head football coach Mike McDonald that after both its scrimmage against Griffin and the Cougars' season opener at Marietta that his team would experience victory twice prior to tonight's home game against LaGrange, he'd probably be a happy camper.
Last Friday's 38-29 win at Marietta was as much a shot of confidence for a Newnan lineup that entered the year with a lineup peppered with some inexperience in key places following a 6-6 season.
The reality, however, is that as pleased as he was to have seen the Cougars rally back in the second half last week with 21, fourth-quarter points, McDonald and his staff know that one victory doesn't make a season.
As good as the Cougars have been in both a 21-14 scrimmage effort over Griffin and last week's victory in Cobb County, practices this week at Newnan in preparation for the Grangers have been at times unsettling from the view of assistant coaches.
At one point in Tuesday's defensive drills, co-defensive coordinator LaVarret Pearson was so frustrated with watching scout team running backs slip out of his group's hands, he bellowed, "Go back to Friday night and see how many missed tackles we had."
Much of the concern comes with preparing for a much-improved LaGrange lineup that seems poised to put its back-to-back sub .500 seasons — its first since 1999 — in the rear view mirror.
A year's experience in head coach Donnie Branch's spread offense — which was as much a change in philosophy in the prestigious program — has made the Grangers even more dangerous than during a recent five-game win streak in the longstanding rivalry between programs.
Tonight brings the 86th meeting since 1908 with LaGrange still leading the all-time series 49-32-4.
McDonald sees the Grangers inching ever closer to the program's glory years from 2000-08 that included three state championships.
LaGrange jumped all over Valley, Ala., in last week's scrimmage, with its varsity taking a 30-0 lead behind two touchdown runs apiece from running backs junior Benny Gray and sophomore Mon Denson.
Quarterback Zach Giddens won this year's starting job after a battle with fellow junior Wynton Heard, who will be among the team's receiving corps with senior Dee Smith.
Gray and Denson expect to be a key to improving an offense that scored more than 25 points in just four games last season.
"The thing that we did on offense that we hadn’t done well in awhile was we ran the football," Branch told Kevin Ecklesberry of the LaGrange News. "We didn’t turn the ball over with our first group, and we ran the football. If we can run the football, it’s going to open up the throwing game.”
It's another early challenge for a Newnan defense that caused a pair of key turnovers against future LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings last week. Cougar junior linebacker Tonaris Portress was involved in both and the unit also sacked the Marietta senior three times.
It still wasn't easy. While the Blue Devils were held to just a single touchdown in the second half, Marietta missed three field goals, including a pair in the fourth quarter that were chip-shots.
McDonald can already see the differences between tonight's LaGrange lineup and the one from last year's 27-6 victory at Callaway Stadium.
"It's a matter of being just settled in to the system a little more," McDonald said of LaGrange's offense. "Defensively they look about like they did four or five years ago, the type of kids they have over there. We're going to have our hands full for certain."
The Grangers' senior defensive ends Joe Sanders (6-5, 270) and Chris Manning (6-3, 210) could be a handful for a relatively new offensive line that struggled a bit in the Cougars run game. Senior running back Quinton Dix finished with 72 yards on 10 carries, but sophomore J.K. Britt was held to just 13 yards on 11 attempts.
No doubt, there's been more praise than criticism so far for the Cougars. After starting the preseason with unanswered questions, whether about an offense returning less than a handful of starters and a defense needing to replace its entire front line, last week's effort was another step in the right direction.
Sophomore quarterback Bryant Bailey's first week numbers were impressive, connecting on 17 of 20 attempts for 187 yards and two touchdowns, both to senior receiver Traon Moss. Moss finished with seven catches and 87 yards and senior Tray Matthews racked up 107 total yards and two rushing scores out of Newnan's new Wildcat formation.
More than anything, McDonald was satisfied with the way the Cougars came out of halftime trailing 22-14 and immediately marched 80-yards on a drive that ended with Tyler Mulvenna's first career varsity field-goal, a 33-yarder after Newnan had a touchdown pass called back on a penalty.
"I was just pleased with the way we came out and finished the game. We got down at halftime and had a bad four minutes there," McDonald said. "We're down eight and come out and put together a great drive and actually score, get it called back. Tyler hits a big field goal there. You'd have hated to have gone eighty yards and not come away with anything. Big field goal, then we got the turnover and then we were able to stick it in and take the lead."