CONYERS -- From a confidence standpoint, Heritage was given all the reassurance it needed last Friday to prove its worth of hosting a first-round playoff game after stunning Lakeside 20-15 in a second-half comeback.
For the first time all season, the Patriots offense and defense worked as one collective unit - both feeding off one another - and rallied to defeat the Panthers with 20 fourth-quarter points.
While head coach Corey Johnson and company were glad the victory secured a home playoff game, the boost of confidence the victory gave his offense - a unit that has struggled at times this season - just might have put an even bigger smile on his face knowing what lies ahead against Coffee High School.
“It’s a confidence booster,” Johnson said. “It’s showing us that even with the youth and inexperience, we’re able to still compete. We haven’t had our best games throughout this season, but we’ve done enough to put us in position to host a playoff game.”
As a result of Heritage’s 20-15 victory over Lakeside, the Patriots will play host to No. 9 ranked Coffee instead of making a trip to face No. 3 Valdosta.
And while Johnson and his Patriots would rather play the Trojans, defeating one of Class AAAAAA’s top teams Friday night will be no easy task, he said.
“Very athletic,” Johnson said of Coffee. “Fast, big. They’re well-coached, of course. That’s one of the reasons why they’re always in the playoffs. They’re a complete team.”
The Patriots will be tasked with slowing down a balance Coffee offense that is averaging 31 points-per-game this season. While no Trojan has posted gaudy numbers this season, Johnson knows his defense will have their work cut out for them.
“They’ve been pretty balanced,” Johnson said of Coffee’s offense. “They have a package where they will go in and run. They will spread it out to run. The also spread it out to get their athletes on the corners and sling it out to them really quick. We have to try to force their hand and make them do what we want them to do.”
For the first time since Week 6, the Patriots’ defense surrendered more than one defensive touchdown last Friday night against Lakeside.
After allowing 167 yards of offense to the Panthers in the first half, the Patriots rebounded and allowed just 88 second-half yards and zero points. The unit also forced two turnovers and recorded three crucial sacks down the stretch.
The Patriots end the regular season allowing 14 points-per-game, their lowest mark since the 2004 season.
Eddie Snell’s defense has been led by leading tackler Kobe Friend, who finished the regular season with 118 tackles and 21 for a loss. Friend is second on the team in sacks with nine and has recorded 10 or more tackles in four consecutive games from his linebacker position.
Defensive end Courtney McBride leads the team in sacks with 9.5 while Kevin Jarvis has eight. As a team, the Patriots have recorded 42 sacks on the season, the most in the Johnson-Snell era.
“We’re going to have to win the turnover game and we’re going to have to protect the ball,” Johnson said. “I think if we can get (Coffee) behind the yard marker in third-and-long, that will play into our hands.”
The Trojans have rushed for 1,652 yards on the season and have thrown for 1,443.
On offense, the Patriots will look to build upon their strong fourth-quarter showing against Lakeside led by quarterback Derrick Thomas. The senior threw three TD passes in the quarter, including the game-winning score with 1:13 remaining in the game.
“I think they know that the can do it,” Johnson said. “With their backs against the wall, they’ve done it before. We have to come out with that fourth-quarter intensity.”
Johnson expects to see both an odd and even man front from the Coffee defense, a unit that is allowing just two touchdowns per game.