Not only is River Ridge getting a chance tonight to face powerhouse Ridgeland, which routed the Knights 42-8 in the third week of the season, but the Region 7AAAA crown is on the line as well.
After falling to Sequoyah and Creekview in its first two games of the season, River Ridge traveled to Rossville — a town just a few miles inside the Georgia-Tennessee state line — to face a Ridgeland team that had won three region titles in the last four years.
The Knights, who had yet to field a settled team due to injuries and were missing star running back E.J. Ellis, were punished often and early by the Panthers and were outgained by more than 200 yards in the first half.
Two River Ridge fumbles also led to the Panthers’ first two scores.
For River Ridge (5-4) to avoid a repeat performance tonight, coach Robert Braucht believes the Knights will have to open the game with discipline.
“We made some mistakes early in that game and put ourselves behind,” Braucht said. “We can’t afford to do that again.”
Braucht also said that Ridgeland (8-1) shouldn’t expect to play the same River Ridge team that it saw in the third week of the season. Instead, the Panthers will see a much improved one instead.
“When we played them the first time, we were still trying to fit our personnel in the right places,” Braucht said. “We were still trying to work kids into new positions due to injuries. Now, we’ve been playing together for six weeks. It’ll be a different game this time.”
Since their loss to the Panthers, the Knights have gone 5-1 and have won their last four games. They enter tonight’s game as the top seed from Region 7AAAA’s southern half.
Another distinct difference since the teams’ first meeting is the return of Ellis, River Ridge’s leading rusher in 2011.
Since returning to action against Northwest Whitfield midway through the season, Ellis has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the Knights’ last five games.
Ellis’ return was a boon for an offense that, since his return, has scored more than 21 points in five straight games — four of which River Ridge won.
Though the Knights have improved throughout the season, Braucht acknowledged that it will be a tough task to beat a Ridgeland team that has yet to score fewer than 35 points in a game all year.
“They are a great team, there is no doubt abut it,” Braucht said. “They are very athletic and they use that to their advantage.”
To slow Ridgeland’s high-powered offense, Braucht believes the Knights will have to keep the Panthers’ playmakers contained.
“The biggest thing is making sure to keep them in front of us and to not give them open, vertical seams on defense,” Braucht said.
Win or lose, Braucht is satisfied that his team will get one more chance to fix any issues it might have before it hosts its inaugural playoff game next week.
“This is the last tune-up we have before the playoffs,” Braucht said. “I’d love to win the game, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t lose any sleep if we lost because we have a bigger game next week.”