The Grangers travel to Gainesville to take on Chestatee in the opening round of the state playoffs.
LaGrange has not won a playoff game since 2008, and head coach Donnie Branch’s crew is looking to change that.
But the Grangers have some work to do if they expect to emerge victorious.
The host War Eagles go into the game with an 8-2 season record, and they finished second in Region 8-AAAA.
LaGrange is 5-5, and it finished third in Region 5-AAAA.
Branch has a big concern preparing for Chestatee.
He said the War Eagles run the exact option-dive offense that Fayette County uses, and the Grangers had major problems adjusting to it in Fayetteville, losing that game in overtime after a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Branch and the other LaGrange coaches got to watch Chestatee on Friday since the Grangers played their final regular-season game on Thursday.
“We got to see them,” Branch said of Chestate. “So that’s unusual that you get to see a playoff opponent. That was the advantage to playing Carrollton on Thursday. We were able to go watch them play. They’re 8-2 for a reason. They’re good, their scheme offensively and defensively is very good. They have a good plan, they play really hard. They look like they play with a lot of energy. They beat some good football teams. You don’t finish second in the region and not be quality. We’ve got our hands full.”
Branch and his staff traveled to Madison County High School, north of Athens, to see Chestatee handle the Red Raiders 48-7.
That game wrapped up the second seed for the War Eagles and guaranteed them the first home playoff game in school history.
“Offensively, they run an option attack and they run it real well,” Branch said. “Their quarterback is a smooth operator. He’s kind of a key cog in the offense. He’s their second leading rusher. When you run the option, you rely on your quarterback to make good decisions. He’s a good passer to keep you honest.”
War Eagles quarterback Jordan DeGraff hands off the most to tailback Quan Clark.
The 5-foot-10, 188-pound senior has rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season.
The 5-foot-11, 155-pound DeGraff keeps the ball on the ground most of the time, throwing for only 432 yards. Chestatee likes its ground game and prefers the dive over the pitch and will keep it that way unless forced to pitch on the option, which is what Branch is hoping will happen.
“They like to run the dive-option game,” Branch said. “We did a terrible job playing it against Fayette County. It’s not that simple. There’s a lot of scheme behind it. I’m confident we’re going to play it better. We’ve made some adjustments on how we’re going to play it. You have to give them different looks, because they’re good. You have to stop the dive, the quarterback and the pitch in that order.”
Branch said the team has made some adjustments on defense including bringing forward some of the best personnel to combat Chestatee’s type of offense, which rarely includes the pass.
The War Eagles will throw, though, so that part of the game must be respected.
“You have to do whatever it takes to stop the dive,” Branch noted. “It could loosen you up in some areas. It’s not like you don’t have things covered. It’s what gets you is when you run the option and you run the option and you run the option and it looks just like the option and all of a sudden he pops back and throws it. It’s the discipline of doing what you’re supposed to do and they wear on you. That’s why Georgia Tech has receivers wide open. It’s not because they’ve got a great passing scheme, it’s because you start creeping up and losing your discipline.”
DeGraff is the kind of quarterback, Branch said, that can burn a team with a sudden aerial if the defensive backs and linebackers are playing too close to the line of scrimmage.
Still, Branch said the primary focus will be on stopping the run up the middle.
“We don’t want to lose with the fullback beating us,” Branch said. “We want to make the quarterback keep it, then he has to pitch it. If you pitch it 20 times, you’re going to fumble five. They’ve pitched the ball six times in five games. You make them pitch it. They want to just dive it.”
Clearly, the LaGrange defensive line will have to plug the holes to prevent Clark from slipping between the guards and tackles.
“If we stop their inside running game, or control it, we’re going to be fine,” Branch said. “They don’t do a lot in the passing game. They’ll go deep, they’ll take a shot on you. You’ve got to honor it, but that’s not what they do. If we get them throwing the football a bunch, we’ve done well and not that they can’t, but that’s not what they came to do. They’ll run it even if you stop them.”
As far as injuries go for the Grangers, they have few at the moment.
Defensive lineman Dazmon Dunlap remains inactive after suffering a concussion in the second half of the Fayette County game on Oct. 19. It’s possible he could return provided LaGrange continues its playoff run with a pair of wins, but nothing is certain.
Benny Gray, a linebacker and running back, is improving after suffering a cracked bone in his ankle on the third play of the Fayette County game.
Previously, Gray was also utilized on defense, but coaches are limiting him to just offensive play until he is 100 percent able to go both ways.
Defensive lineman Joe Sanders has had a nagging hand and hamstring injury half the season, but is able to play.
“Benny (Gray) is getting better,” Branch reported. “He’s better this week than he was last. I think everybody else is okay. We’ve got your dings and things, but we’re relatively about as healthy as we’ve been. If Benny is good to go, that’s a difference maker. That was a back breaker at Fayette losing him on the third play of the game.”
The Grangers’ top receiver, Dee Smith, has a slight knee issue that has bothered him, but again, he’ll be able to play.
With Smith in the lineup, the Grangers will look to continue to put up points on offense.
The Grangers have moved the ball well on everyone they’ve played this season, and they’re averaging more than 30 points a game with junior quarterback Zach Giddens leading the spread offense.
Looking ahead, the Grangers would be on the road in Round 2 if the seeding holds up.
On the other side of the draw, a number one seed, Ridgeland, is hosting Washington.
If Ridgeland wins, LaGrange would be on the road.
If Washington wins, it would face LaGrange at Callaway Stadium.
“Hey look, if you’re playing, you’re excited,” Branch said. “Either one of those teams, they’re quality, but they’re not unbeatable. We would be really excited for the opportunity to play either one.”