TIFTON — Tonight’s Irwin County-Clinch County football game is not for the state Class A public school championship, but in the eyes of the thousands who will be in attendance, it may as well be.
No. 1 versus No. 2 in media rankings. Powerhouse against powerhouse. And, for Irwin County, the chance to slay years of demons.
Irwin (11-0) defeated Clinch (11-1) in the regular season game Sept. 20, 14-0. They’ve won the last three of these now, but all them were avenged in the playoffs. Unfortunately, for Irwin, all 2017 and 2018 were avenged in the state finals. The Panthers did the same in 2015, too.
Clinch and Irwin are in the same region. In every larger classification in Georgia, the only way No. 1 and No. 2 from the same conference could meet would be in the finals. But for the past few seasons, Class A has had power ratings. Since Clinch is not a region champion, it could not go into the playoffs ranked higher than teams that were.
Fourth was the highest spot for the Panthers under GHSA rules. That allowed them to be on the same side of the bracket as Irwin, setting up tonight’s game.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. in Ocilla. Irwin has announced that gates will open at 6 p.m. Fans are asked to enter the gate on the side they will be sitting. Tickets are $15 each.
This is the 46th meeting between the schools. Ocilla first picked up a football in 1922. Clinch was a late bloomer, waiting until 1952. They first met that year, the Panthers’ ninth ever game. Irwin won, 42-6. The Indians were dominant then, Clinch not so much so. The Indians won every meeting, 10 of them, until Clinch mustered a tie in 1980. The Panthers won their first in 1981.
The series soon tilted to Clinch’s favor and the Indians went nearly a decade without a win. It’s evened back up again and the Sept. 20 win tilted the series to 23-22-1 for Irwin.
To be sure, there is not a lack of familiarity. No surprises. No gimmickry.
“Clinch is Clinch,” said head coach Buddy Nobles. He’s happy the game will be at home, on familiar territory. Not that being at home necessarily makes it easier.
“We’re going to have to play a perfect game,” Nobles said.
Irwin did the first time around, forcing four turnovers and holding quarterback Tyler Morehead to no completions in the 14-0 victory. One of the takeaways proved a big difference, as JyQuez Marshall returned a Clinch fumble 70 yards, allowing Irwin to go up 14-0.
The Indians lost one of two fumbles, but came to no harm. One of the fumbles on Irwin’s end also ended up beneficial with Gabriel Benyard returning a teammate’s error for a 78-yard score.
Clinch was No. 1 when Irwin won the September meeting. They dropped to No. 2 and have been that way since. Nobles said Clinch has gotten even better since that loss.
The Panthers come in with an eight-game win streak. Their defense has not been as stout as Irwin’s (Clinch allowed an average of 14.3 points during the span) but their offense remains solid, 38.6 points per game.
In last week’s quarterfinals, Irwin destroyed No. 10 Manchester, 54-12. Irwin led early and often, up 21-0 after a quarter and 48-6 at the half. D.J. Lundy ran seven times and scored four touchdowns according to Irwin’s Hudl stats, racking up 190 yards. Jamorri Colson and Benyard each had rushing touchdowns. Benyard also reeled in a 50-yard touchdown from Zach Smith. Marshall returned an interception for a score.
Clinch scored slower in beating the Warren County Screaming Devils 38-16. The Panthers were up 3-0 at the first quarter, 24-0 at intermission. Georgia High School Football Daily credited Morehead with 151 rush yards and Michael Walker with 78 more.
Morehead, said Nobles, “Is somebody special.” Tennessee and Florida State are among the teams supposedly showing strong interest.
As strong as Irwin’s offense has been throughout the season, the defense has been just as good, if not better. For that, Nobles has credited his assistants, including Casey Soliday, who has been interim head coach while Nobles has been out. The Indians shut out six teams in the regular season and only one team in 11 games has scored on the first team defense.
Tonight’s winner goes on to the finals in Atlanta, which are set for Dec. 14 at 10 a.m. for Irwin’s division. The playoffs will be at Georgia State University Stadium, formerly known as Turner Field. The opponent would be either Pelham or Marion County.