Tonight marks the sixth consecutive season that the North Augusta High School football team has advanced to the playoffs under the guidance of head coach Dan Pippin. Since Pippin arrived in 2006, the Yellow Jackets have improved every year and have established themselves as one of the top programs in South Carolina.
The challenge facing this season’s squad is to continue the steady climb and improve on recent year’s results, including back-to-back trips to the state semifinals in the Class AAAA, Division II playoff bracket. It won’t be easy, especially as the No. 6 seed, which assures North Augusta (8-3) of only one home game in the playoffs.
“It’s a huge positive with our home crowd. We have a real home-field advantage, and they make this a tough place to play,” Pippin said. “It’s an exciting and fun time. The kids have a little more pep in their step, and the intensity level is higher.”
The good news is the home game is tonight, when it will play host to Nation Ford (7-4) at Jackets Stadium. The bad news is the visiting Falcons come armed with a very capable offense.
Nation Ford is led by quarterback Dalton Helms.
The junior signal caller is the triggerman in a Falcon offense that scored an average of about 30 points per game this season, with the only losses coming against other Class AAAA playoff teams. For the season, Helms completed 143 of 261 passes for 2,071 yards and 20 touchdowns. Helms isn’t strictly a pocket passer. He gained 310 yards on 67 carries this season, finding the end zone twice with his legs.
The biggest flaw in Helms’ game is that he’s prone to commit turnovers.
He was intercepted 14 times and lost three fumbles. Those kind of mistakes will hurt against a North Augusta defense that’s adept at takeaways. Trey Morgan’s a safety whose mere presence discourages most opponents from throwing in his direction, and he still recorded three interceptions this season. He’s tied for the team lead in takeaways with Brandon Maddox who has an interception and two fumble recoveries to go with his 75 tackles. Maddox might lead most teams with that many stops, but he’s only fourth on the Yellow Jackets in tackles, trailing Morgan (91), as well as linebackers Ronald Williams (98) and Kris Howard, whose 151 tackles made him the leader among Aiken-area players this season.
North Augusta’s front seven will be charged with putting pressure on Helms and containing Daniel Jackson. The senior running back is the Falcons’ leading rusher with 865 yards and eight touchdowns on 188 carries. The best way to stop Jackson will be by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage and knocking Nation Ford off rhythm. That will also go a long way in helping corner backs Robbie Morgan and Devin Grimes who will have their hands full with a talented pair of receivers.
Helms didn’t pass the 2K threshold in passing by accident, and he had a lot of help from AK McCoy. The senior wide out had an impressive season with 56 catches for 1,045 yards and nine touchdowns. While McCoy’s a huge threat, North Augusta can’t overload on him without risking being burnt by Dijuan Ussery. Another senior receiver, Ussery hauled in 44 passes for 781 yards and nine touchdowns of his own.
“Their receivers look real good and real fast,” Pippin said. “They’ve got a lot of big play potential, and the quarterback slings it pretty good.”
The duo’s talent was best displayed in a 37-20 win over Lancaster. In a game without Helms under center because of migraines, McCoy and Ussery caught passes from fellow receiver Riley Hilton and spurred him on to a huge game. McCoy and Ussery combined for 15 receptions for 282 yards and two touchdowns as Hilton passed for 415 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad for the third receiver, who had 29 receptions for 336 yards and three touchdowns this season.
With so much firepower, the best strategy for North Augusta might be to play from the lead and rely on its own potent offense to rack up yards and points. It’s a great possibility against a Nation Ford squad that surrendered an average of 25 points per game. In its four losses, Nation Ford’s points allowed average ballooned to more than 37. In fact, the Falcons enter the first-round playoff game having lost back-to-back games where they surrendered 70 points and lost a chance at a much higher playoff seed. That recent history doesn’t bode well against A Yellow Jacket squad which is posting an average of more than 33 points per game.
“The key for us is to play real fast,” Pippin said. “Even faster than we normally play. We need to be on the ball as soon as it’s ready.”
North Augusta is led by its big and athletic offensive line that creates holes for the speedy and elusive DeVonte Pressley to run through and does a good job of protecting quarterback Trib Reece. Since taking over as the starting quarterback in Week Five, the sophomore has guided North Augusta to a 5-1 record. Reece has completed 75 of 141 passes for 1,370 yards and 14 touchdowns this season and has five wide outs to get the ball to for big plays.
In addition to Trey Morgan (22 receptions, 307 yards, four touchdowns), Dre Dunbar (21 receptions, 432 yards, three touchdowns), Grimes (20 receptions, 411 yards, four touchdowns), Zack Wilson (19 receptions, 285 yards, three touchdowns) and Antuan Andrews (seven receptions, 204 yards, one touchdown) as well as tight end Logan Woodward is also capable of catching the ball when he’s not blocking. But he’s effective as a sixth offensive lineman, which helps Pressley inflict damage. The slight senior has been the main weapon on offense for the Yellow Jackets, turning 190 carries into 1,479 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“We’re going to do what we do. Hopefully that’s good enough to win because it has done the job so far,” Pippin said. “Anytime you win a football game, it’s special. We win, and we advance.”
Noah Feit is the Sports Editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.
What: Class AAAA, Division II playoffs
Who: North Augusta (8-3) vs. Nation Ford (7-4)
Where: Jackets Stadium, North Augusta
When: 7:30 p.m.
Previous Meeting: This is the team’s first-ever matchup