With the win over archrival Cass last week on the road to kick off Region 7-AAAAA play, it marked the third consecutive win for the Woodland High football team to begin the year.
That might not seem overly significant to some programs, but to Woodland, it’s massive, as the most recent 3-0 start came in 2008. In fact, the Wildcats have a chance, this week, to start 4-0 for the first time in school history.
To accomplish that feat, Woodland will need to take care of business at home against a winless Paudling County team, which happens to be one of the teams Woodland beat early on in 2008 during its last 3-0 start.
Despite an 0-3 record, the Patriots have gradually improved each game. Following a 38-0 loss to Class 7A North Paulding and 48-14 defeat to Class 7A Kennesaw Mountain to open the campaign, Paulding fell 21-17 to Hiram last week. The Patriots took a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter but let it slip away.
Last season, Paulding County was the fourth and final team to make the state playoffs out of Region 7-AAAAA, a significant accomplishment given the region is possibly the most competitive in Class 5A. One of the wins that earned the Patriots a playoff berth was a 35-34 win at Wildcat Stadium, which was the one that got away for Woodland in its most disappointing defeat of 2017. The Wildcats led by 13 at the end of the third quarter, but gave up the lead to Paulding and didn't win another game the rest of the season.
Woodland has lost both of its matchups with the Patriots since reuniting in the same region in 2016. Before that, though, Woodland had gotten the better of Paulding in four straight games. However, Paulding leads the all-time series, 8-4.
This season, Paulding will have a little different look on offense than in years past.
“They’re a spread offense,” Woodland head coach Tony Plott said of the Patriots. “Coach [Van] Spence does a great job. He was the offensive coordinator at McEachern for years. He does a good job figuring out who his athletes are and getting them the ball. You can see the progress throughout the game film that we have is that he’s seeing what his personnel is and who his playmakers are, and he’s doing a better job of getting them the ball. You can see that they’ve improved each week, really.”
It will take a total team effort for the Wildcats defense to keep the Patriots from getting into open space. In some ways, that plays right into the hands of a Woodland unit blessed with plenty of speed.
Linebackers Blake Cash, Reed Findley and Seth Johnson were flying all over the field against Cass. Senior safety Titus Jones also made sure the Colonels were aware of his presence with plenty of crunching hits.
While the Wildcats defense made several big plays in the first half last week, including blocking a field goal and recovering a fumble, the Colonels still moved the ball with relative ease. That wasn’t the case in the second half, as Woodland completely stymied the Cass offense.
A slow start on defense would be concerning Friday, especially if the offense follows suit like it did against Cass with just seven points in the first half.
“In the second half of last week’s game, our guys played with a different intensity, a different sense of urgency,” Plott said. “We’ve just got to start the game off that way. If our kids will come out, be physical and do what they’re supposed to do, we’ll have some success, anyway, on offense. If we come out like we did in the first half [against Cass], then we’re going to struggle.”
The Wildcats managed to turn things on in the second half, despite never truly being able to get the passing attack going. Starting quarterback Jakob Foss completed just one pass in the game — the only completion by either team. It was a well-designed, perfectly executed screen pass that helped Woodland pick up a key first down on its go-ahead drive.
The rest of the night, though, any time Foss dropped back to pass, almost always off a play-action fake, a Cass defender was chasing him down from behind.
“He’s doing what we’re asking him to do, but we’ve got to do a better job of protecting him so we can throw the ball better,” Plott said of Foss. “We called a few play-action passes last week, protection broke down and Jakob was running for his life. We’ve got to do a better job protecting and mixing in more of our three-step passing game, but it all comes down to protection.”
Woodland has had plenty of offensive success this season, relying almost exclusively on the rushing attack, led by Justice Carter and Demarcus Williams. However, the Wildcats will need to figure out a way to successfully move the ball through the air to truly become a complete team.
Perhaps, the team will show progress in that area Friday. According to Plott, Paulding’s defense is predicated on speed, so Woodland could possibly use that against the Patriots for some big plays in the passing game.
“They’re a 4-3, and they have a huge middle linebacker and two defensive tackles who are pretty big,” Plott said. “Their defensive ends are smaller but quick. Other than the two inside guys, I would say the linebackers and safeties are all kids who can run. They’re built on speed for sure.”
Even if Woodland is the favorite on paper (and computers with CalPreps.com projecting a 30-point Wildcat win), Plott has stressed to his players not to overlook Paulding or any opponent, for that matter.
As much success as Woodland has had this year, the season is still not even to the midway point. For the Wildcats to make the playoffs this year, they have to win all the games in which they’re the favorites. But to do so, they need to keep their longstanding underdog mentality.
“We’re not in a position, right now, to just get off the bus and beat anybody,” Plott said. “We’ve got to outwork people; we’ve got to be physical; we’ve got to do the little things right; we’ve got to protect the football; we’ve got to do the fundamental things of blocking and tackling. We have to play a clean game still at this point to have success. Hopefully, the kids realize that right now.”