MADISON, Ga - It's mid-October, and football teams around the state are firmly into their region schedules, jockeying for playoff position with just three weeks of the regular season remaining. One of this week's biggest matchups features two top-ranked Region 8-AAA teams battling it out in Madison.
Undefeated Monroe Area (7-0) travels to Morgan County's "Dog Pound" for the High 5 Sports Game of the Week with plenty at stake.
"I've been here 12 years and this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest regular season game I can remember," said Morgan County Athletic Director Doug Connelly.
Connelly says he expects a large crowd of close to 3,000 people, including a motivated fan base from nearby Monroe Area where the Purple Hurricane faithful are fired up due to the success of first-year head coach Kevin Reach and his revamped staff of assistants.
The MOCO Bulldogs have experienced their own coaching makeover in 2017. Head Coach Bill Malone scrapped the old Wing-T offensive scheme and brought in 28-year-old former Flowery Branch assistant Wade Woodall to install a new-and-improved spread offense. Malone also hired one of his former Bulldog players, Brett Bell, also 28, as defensive coordinator. Malone says the influx of youth on the coaching staff has energized coaches and players alike.
"There's a lot more intensity at practice...it's a fresh breath all the way around," said Malone. "The old Bill Malone offense is gone (laugh). We're flinging it all over everywhere and we'll do it this Friday night if we don't end up on our backs because Monroe Area has a great pass rush...our defense has been really good this year too. We've changed to a 3-4 and we've got a solid nose tackle (Jayson Fryzel) plugging up the middle pretty good."
So far this season Woodall's new offensive scheme is averaging 13 points per game more than last year's team. Senior quarterback Trey Patterson uses multiple targets including 6'4" wide receiver Anthony Cooper and the speedy "Tuke" Robinson. And in case you fall asleep on the spread offense, Morgan County (5-1) can break "Rambo" out in short yardage situations- 5'7" running back Rambo Rambus has the best name in the state and coach Malone says he earns it every Friday night.
Friday will be an all-day celebration for Morgan County. A homecoming parade at 1 p.m. featuring tricked-out cars and original floats gets things started and kickoff between the Purple Hurricanes and Bulldogs is set for 7:30 p.m., but the joy of homecoming week is tempered by the sadness that still lingers in Madison following the tragic loss of two Bulldog football players during an 18 month span.
Offensive lineman Seth Stapleton was killed in a single-car crash following a homecoming game with Oconee County in 2015, and Michael Rhodes died when the car he was riding in hydroplaned into another vehicle in Putnam County in April. Rhodes was a senior lineman for the Bulldogs, his girlfriend Brittany Smith, a Morgan County Alumnae, was also killed in the accident.
"It's all been so shocking," Malone told FOX 5 Sports. "This has always been a tight-knit place, they support one another...being here it's actually been a really special time to see how we lean on each other. There's a level of empathy that lives on here as a result of what's happened."
So the Bulldogs are set to play another important October football game between the hedges of Bill Corry Stadium, and they'll do it as they continue to remember the lives of two of their own who once wore the helmet on Friday nights in Madison.