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There is still a little time left in the regular season, but Eupora's road battle with West Lowndes tonight will have a playoff feel.
While both the Panthers (6-2, 3-0 in Region 2-2A) and the Eagles (5-3, 2-1 in Region 2-2A) are already on a path to head into postseason play, the winner of tonight's 7 p.m. game will have the inside track at becoming the division's runner-up, a distinction that would earn home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
"Our guys realize that, right now, they're behind the eight ball a little bit," said Eupora head coach Junior Graham, whose Eagles currently sit at third in the region. "If they want to play that first round home game, a lot hinges on (tonight)."
Of concern to Graham entering tonight's critical contest is the play of West Lowndes junior running back Antonio Wilson.
Wilson leads the Panthers with 1,457 rushing yards this season, has found the endzone 11 times, and averages over 10 yards per carry.
"He's a special player," said Graham. "Their coaches do a good job of managing ways to get him the ball. They do a good job with him in the screen game, they put him at quarterback some and run some misdirection stuff with him, and they just slide him up in the backfield and get him the ball in various ways. Then, they've got enough skill at other positions that you can't just put all your focus on him."
In shutting down Wilson and the athleticism of West Lowndes, Graham will again have the services of defensive back Steadman Rice.
Rice, who missed the season's first seven games after breaking his leg in a preseason jamboree, returned last week in time for the Eagles' win against J.Z. George.
"We actually played him more snaps than we intended to last week," said Graham. "We were just going to play him on third-and-long situations in the secondary and J.Z. George came out in spread formation, four-wide, and we knew we had to get into a four-deep secondary look."
Aside from helping out on defense, Graham says getting Rice back has given Eupora's special teams unit a boost.
"We kicked our first extra-point last week," said Graham. "(Rice's injury) was the big reason we haven't been kicking any. He's our deep-snapper on punts and field goals. We were 3-of-4 kicking last week, so we feel good about that addition to our game."
With the high stakes of games such as tonight's, Graham says he's glad he's getting some of his injured players, like Rice, back into the fold.
"We've gained some valuable experience for some guys through our injuries," said Graham. "But we welcome (Rice and others) back for sure."
J.Z. George (3-6) at East Webster (9-0)
The unbeaten Wolverines, ranked fourth in Class 2A by The Associated Press, continued their dominance a week ago by shutting out Hamilton 35-0.
It was the fifth time this season that East Webster held an opponent scoreless.
J.Z. George, whose 19.4 points per game average is the second-worst in Region 2-2A, will have to find a way to overcome the stifling Wolverine defense to pull the upset.
Tonight's game kicks off at 7 p.m.
Ackerman (1-8) at Hamilton (3-6)
In a battle of struggling squads, Ackerman travels to Hamilton to face the Lions.
Coming in, Ackerman has lost eight in a row, while Hamilton has dropped its last three.
Both teams are winless in Region 2-2A play and sit tied for the bottom spot in the division.
Despite both teams' difficulties, the playoffs remain a possibility for each side coming into tonight.
Yet, with just two games remaining in the regular season, time is running short for both Ackerman and Hamilton to make any sort of postseason push.
Tonight's game kicks off at 7 p.m.