Good football teams know how to play to their strengths and execute their game plan on a weekly basis.
Great teams are versatile and know how to adjust and execute a new game plan when the opposition throws something new their way.
That, maybe more than anything else, is the reason Smiths Station is still playing on Friday in the AHSAA Class 6A quarterfinals. This week, Smiths Station will host McGill-Toolen (8 p.m. Friday at Panther Stadium), but Panthers coach Mark Rose said his team is unfazed by the challenge.
“The most excited I’ve seen the players yet this year was Monday morning in the weight room,” Rose said. “We’re in the final eight now, what we’ve been working to for six years. We’re just focused on waking up Saturday still playing and being in the final four. It’s going to take a great effort.”
The Panthers have shown all year an ability to be flexible and, to use a cliché, take what the other team gives them. They won their first eight games with a combination of defense and ball-control offense, though, when called upon, quarterback Jerrell Gilmore showed the passing game could be dangerous as well.
After two consecutive losses to end the regular season cost Smiths Station a region title, however, Rose and his coaches knew it would take some changes in philosophy to contend in the postseason.
Judging by the prolific passing attack that gave the team a win at Enterprise in the second round last Friday, the players and coaches have adjusted well.
“They left us for dead about a month ago,” Rose said. “We went through some injuries and played two good teams that beat us, but we pushed and figured out a new personality. We realized we couldn’t line it up and just run it and control it like we did in the Opelika game (a 3-0 win for Smiths Station). We had to turn it loose running and throwing, and I think we’re a better team for it.
“The sign of a championship team is, whatever comes at you, you answer. You do whatever you’ve got to do in whatever situation. The two extremes were that we had to shut out Opelika to win, and then last week we had to score 41 to win. You just have to answer the call, whatever it is.”
Rose said he’s not exactly sure how the game will play out Friday. The call could be a fast-paced, high-scoring affair. Or, it could be a grind-it-out defensive showdown. What he does know is that McGill-Toolen has consistently been among the state’s top teams this year.
“We’ve played against some great teams,” Rose said. “(McGill-Toolen) has an outstanding team. I think we match up in size. They’re not as big as Enterprise, but really fast, aggressive and well-coached. To me, it’s a tossup.”
Against that type of speed on defense, Gilmore said it would take good timing in the passing game and a good effort on the ground to open things up.
“The routes have to be on time,” he said. “We have to have good timing and lead the receivers just enough.”
The receivers, Johnny Woods and Ledarion Heath, were spectacular last week. The runners, primarily DeVante Marshall and J.J. Dancy, have been reliable all season.
This week is no different than all the rest, except that a win would put Smiths Station in the semifinals for the first time since 1989, when it lost the state title 37-35 to Oxford.
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