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No. 1 ELCA at No. 2 Landmark tops huge slate for regular season finale

So, here we go again. Another game featuring the top two teams in the Atlanta Journal Constitution/Georgia High School Football Daily Top 10 poll, but this time the stakes are a little higher.

Back on Sept. 30, then-No. 1 (private) Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy outlasted then-No. 2 (private) Wesleyan, 34-31. Friday, current No. 1 ELCA (9-0, 6-0 in Region 5) will once again face the No. 2 team on the road, but this time it is long-time rival Landmark Christian School (9-0, 6-0) in the regular season finale for both teams.

ELCA-Landmark for the Region 5 title is nothing new. In fact, since 2002 a team other than ELCA or Landmark has won the region just twice – Whitefield Academy in 2008 and Holy Innocents’ in 2009. Landmark wore the crown six consecutive seasons, from 2002 to 2007. Now ELCA has a six-year region title winning streak dating back to 2010.

And the game has usually had a lot riding on it. For example, in 2011, ELCA defeated Landmark 35-14 in the regular season and went on to win the region title. Seven weeks later in the Class A semifinals, Landmark pulled off a 14-7 upset to advance to the state title game – the last time the War Eagles played for a state title. Then in 2014, after ELCA began the season 0-6, due to a brutal non-region schedule filled with highly-ranked opponents from higher classifications, the Chargers knocked off then-No. 1 Landmark, 35-28, and went on to win another region title.

But Friday will be the first time the two have met while both are ranked in the top two. Earlier this week both head coaches, ELCA’s Jonathan Gess and Landmark’s Wayne Brantley, talked about the rivalry and this year’s game.

Jonathan Gess, ELCA
What are your thoughts on the ELCA-Landmark rivalry overall?
“Every year it seems like whenever we play, we’re good and they’re good. In 2011, we were pretty good and beat them in the playoffs, then they came back and beat us in the semifinals. Then 2014 was a huge game for us because we basically had to win out to make the playoffs after starting 0-6. They were really good and nobody expected us to win, but we won that game. It’s just always a big game between us.”

Has the rivalry changed at all over the years?
“I think the teams have much more respect for each other and there’s not nearly as much hate as there used to be. When I first got here, things were always heated between our two schools and even our parents. But now I think there is a lot more of a mutual respect between our schools and our programs.”

What are your thoughts on Friday’s game?
“I think this might be one of those years like 2011, where win or lose, we might see each other again. Their quarterback, Joey Blount, is fast, and a great athlete. They have good wide receivers and off course [RB] Lofton Tidwell is a stud. You have to tip your hat to coach Brantley and the way he has taken what he has and plug the pieces into the right places. Moving Blount to quarterback was a great move nobody saw. They’re good on the offensive and defensive lines. They’re just a very well-rounded team.”

How do you think your team is playing right now?
“We only have eight seniors and so we’re still very young with a lot of juniors and sophomores starting and playing. [Sophomore QB] Brayden Rush has stepped up and improved each week. He’s completing about 65 percent of his passes, and we tend to throw the ball down the field a lot, which is a great complement to our running game. [Junior speedster] Khaleb Hood has been out all year with an injury, but [junior WR] Shawn Queen has really stepped up and made big plays for us. We’re just playing fast as an offense right now because everybody is on the same page and confident in what they’re doing. Defensively we’re getting better each week. We’re really flying around and playing physical. We’re playing better than I thought we would and the kids are continuing to work hard and improve every day.”
Wayne Brantley, Landmark Christian
With so much hype surrounding this game, do you prepare for it any differently?
“We try to prepare the same way as we would any other week, but our kids have the internet and are on social media, so they see everything and hear everything.”

Out of all the great teams that Landmark has had, is this the most talented group?
“We have some very talented players, but this group of kids has great character and great integrity. I think they are the hardest working team we have had here. All of our teams work hard, but this group has taken it to another level and I think a lot of that is due to the great senior leaders we have. This team came in with a chip on its shoulder because there was all this talk about what they would do after we lost so many seniors.”

What have senior QB/DB Joey Blount and RB/LB Lofton Tidwell meant to the team?
“I can’t say enough about them. They are four year starters. They play on both sides of the ball. They both just do so much for us not only on the field, but from a leadership and a character standpoint. They’re smart and they are our hardest workers. I’d say if you put together a list of the 10 best players we ever had, you would have to put both of them on that list.”

What concerns you about this year’s ELCA team?
“Defensively, they are very sound. Normally, when you look at film you see a few areas that you may be able to exploit on most teams. With them, you don’t see that. You have to out there and beat them, out execute them. They have good players and they all play hard. You have to be great on your assignments. Offensively they are so tough to defend. They spread you out and execute their outside run game with great speed on the jet [sweep], and that sets up their power running game with their H-back and their talented running backs who are really strong and run hard.”

How do you think your team is playing now?
“Our identity is being strong and physical with our offensive line and our defensive line. We want to be more physical and play with better technique, because our philosophy is the team that hits the hardest and executes the best will win. Our kids are playing really hard and with great technique now. We’re doing a good job of running between the tackles and playing good run defense.”

And now here’s a look at some of the top games this weekend, including ELCA-Landmark:

No. 1 (private) ELCA (9-0, 6-0 in Region 5) at No. 2 Landmark Christian (9-0, 6-0)
(Preview courtesy of Georgia High School Football Daily)  The winner is the Region 5-A champion. ELCA has beaten Landmark eight consecutive times in regular-season games, but did lose to Landmark 14-7 in a state semifinal in 2011. ELCA has won six straight region titles and can become the 15th school in GHSA history to win seven straight. ELCA has won 45 consecutive region games, tied for the 10th-longest streak of its kind in history. Landmark Christian won its six region titles consecutively from 2002 to 2007. This is the first regular-season game between No. 1 and No. 2 teams in Class A since 1997 (Macon County vs. Miller County). ELCA RB Trevor Gear has rushed for a team-leading 868 yards and 12 touchdowns. ELCA averages 7.4 y(ards per rush and passes less than 10 times per game. The Chargers have allowed 60 points in nine games, and most of that came in a 34-31 victory over Wesleyan, an excellent passing team. Landmark Christian RB/LB Lofton Tidwell has rushed for 1,090 yards on 111 carries (9.8 ypc) and scored 18 touchdowns. Joey Blount has passed for 980 yards and rushed for 490. Landmark’s defense, which allows 10 points per game, is led by seniors LB Tidwell, FS Blount, LB Kenny Terry, DE Dylan Gabrielson and SS Brandon Stone. ELCA won the last meeting 48-28 in 2015.

No. 6 (Private) Fellowship Christian (9-0, 7-0 in Region 7) at No. 5 Mt. Zion-Carroll (9-0, 6-0) (Preview courtesy of Georgia High School Football Daily) 
This is the Region 6-A championship game between the winners of subregion A (Mount Zion) and subregion B (Fellowship Christian). Mount Zion is seeking its first region title since 1996 and fourth overall. Fellowship Christian won its only region title in 2007, when it won a school-record 11 games and reached the Class A quarterfinals. Fellowship Christian averages 119.3 yards per game passing, but the Paladins rely on a running game that averages 275.6 yards. Senior RBs Andrew Johnson (124 carries, 908 yards, 12 TDs) and Andrew Minkert (101-649-7) get about 60 percent of the carries. Junior DL Billy McCurry leads the team in tackles (66), tackles for losses (18) and sacks (eight). Mount Zion essentially won its subregion when it beat Darlington 25-17 on Sept. 30 in three overtimes in a game that was tied 3-3 at the end of regulation. Jace Jordan is the team’s leading rusher with 1,040 yards and 13 TDs on 92 carries. Richard Farley has run for 490 yards on 84 carries. QB Jordan Akin has passed for 701 yards and seven TDs. Mount Zion won the last meeting, 31-24 in 2015.

No. 2 Macon County (7-2, 5-0 in Region 4-Division B) at No. 4 (public) Manchester (9-0, 5-0) The winner is the Region 4-A champion. Both teams played in Class AA last season. Macon County is seeking its third consecutive region title and 13th overall. Manchester has won 11 region titles but none since 2001. These teams have not played since 2009, but they met in the state semifinals in 1994 and 1995, each winning once. 2. Manchester has attempted only 47 passes and completed 14 for 402 yards. The Blue Devils employ a stable of four primary running backs – Tre Gamble (86 carries, 795 yards, 17 touchdowns), Deenizio Gamble (51-612-6), Ashton Bell (52-657-8) and Kelvin Turner (85-458-6). Macon County is known for passing, but the team has a 1,000-yard rusher, Jared Daniels (84-1,059-8). K’hari Lane has thrown 40 TD passes, almost one per five attempts. He’s 131-of-207 for 2,552 yards. The main target is Trey Brown (29-636-14). Manchester won 61-26 in 2009.

Other key games of note:

No. 10 (private) Athens Academy at No. 3 (private) Prince Avenue Christian

Savannah Christian at No. 5 (private) Calvary Day

No. 7 (private) Tattnall Square at Washington-Wilkes

No. 8 (private) Mt. Paran Christian at No. 9 (private) Darlington

No. 6 (public) Twiggs County at Greene County

George Walton at No. 9 (public) Commerce


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