Most coaches say that the competition gets tougher as the playoffs wear on. For North Augusta, the competition just went to its highest possible level in the Class AAAA, Division II semifinals.

The Jackets (12-1) take to the road for the first time this postseason today, and their destination is Rock Hill to play Northwestern (13-0). Despite being the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, the Trojans have been ranked No. 1 in the state media poll since their 42-35 win over Class AAAA, Division I power Byrnes on Sept. 13. They’re also ranked as high as No. 7 in national rankings.

North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin said he respects what he called a “really good” Trojan squad, but he feels his team is prepared to face such a foe.

“It’s not just this year, but we’ve played other really good teams in the past,” he said. “Obviously, they’re very good, but rankings don’t win championships.”

In each of the last two seasons, the Jackets have fallen to the eventual state champion – Goose Creek in 2011 and Greenwood last year. This season, North Augusta has played and beaten Dutch Fork and Sumter, both still alive in the Class AAAA, Division I semifinals.

Leading the way for Northwestern is quarterback Mason Rudolph. The Oklahoma State commitment has not only completed 73 percent of his passes (282-of-386) for 3,570 yards, 50 touchdowns and six interceptions, but he’s also the Trojans’ leading rusher with 514 yards and 15 touchdowns on 108 carries.

When these teams last met in a 31-21 road win for the Jackets in 2011, Pippin said he thought then that Rudolph had the potential to be better than Justin Worley, the Trojans’ previous quarterback – now at Tennessee. Worley led Northwestern into North Augusta in 2010 and left with a 42-14 victory.

“You couldn’t just drop into coverage and defend the pass because you have to defend him,” Pippin said of Rudolph’s ability to run as well as “throw the ball all over the yard.”

While North Augusta junior quarterback Trib Reece might not have quite the numbers that Rudolph has put up, he’s certainly no slouch. Reece, who has garnered attention from multiple colleges, leads the area with 2,765 yards, 36 touchdowns and only six interceptions while completing 69 percent of his passes (212-of-309).

Perhaps Reece’s best asset, according to Pippin, is his self-awareness.

“You know, I think that Trib’s a real good quarterback,” he said, before noting that Rudolph was playing at a level Reece hasn’t reached yet. “But the good thing about Trib is Trib knows that.”

Both signal callers have talented receivers at their disposal. Keyon West leads the Jackets will 1,124 yards and 14 touchdowns on 86 catches, with Dre Dunbar adding 668 yards and 10 scores on 52 catches. For the Trojans, Dupree Hart has 1,266 yards and 19 touchdowns on 84 receptions, while Quadarious Fair has 78 catches for 1,184 ayrds and 23 touchdowns.

The North Augusta offense is more balanced run to pass, with Dashawn Barnes and Willie McCloud accounting for a combined 2,114 yards on the ground to only 1,701 for the entire Trojans’ roster. McCloud has more than 1,300 of those yards and 16 rushing touchdowns and has also caught a touchdown pass on the season. Barnes has been limited with an injury in recent weeks and didn’t play last week.

Pippin said that the Trojans have a tendency to “nickel and dime” their way down the field with short passes, throwing roughly 55 percent of the time, by his estimation. He said the Jackets probably run about that much, which will allow them to keep possession and hold Rudolph and Co. off the field.

“I’m not a big believer in time of possession and that kind of stuff,” he said. “I think the more plays we run this week, the better we’re going to be because we’ll have the ball.”

Both teams have been stingy on defense. North Augusta has allowed 20 or more points only three times, its only loss an 18-14 upset by Lexington. The Jackets have allowed a combined 21 points in their playoff wins, 42-11 over Laurens and 23-10 over Beaufort.

The Trojans have allowed three teams to cross that line, but the Northwestern defense also shut out South Pointe, a team still alive on the other side of the bracket after going on the road to beat top-seeded Goose Creek 30-27. Northwestern gave up its highest point total since the Byrnes matchup in the first round of the playoffs, a 55-22 win over West Florence, but the defense got back on track last week with a 39-7 win over York. In that game, the Trojans surrendered only 253 total yards and just 88 on the ground.

The Trojan defense is led by safety Corey Seargent, who has offers from Kansas, Kansas State, Appalachian State, East Carolina and UNC Charlotte. He has 136 tackles on the year to lead the team and also has three interceptions. The Jackets’ top defenders include linebacker Ronald Williams, the team’s leader with 113 tackles, and linemen Brandon Maddox and Brandon Thomas, who have five sacks each.

Pippin said the play of that defensive front will be crucial to holding the Trojans at bay as much as possible.

“That’s, I think, the key to everything,” he said.

Tonight’s game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at District 3 Stadium in Rock Hill.

Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.

At a glance

WHAT: Class AAAA, Division II semifinals

WHO: North Augusta (12-1) at Northwestern (13-0)

WHERE: District 3 Stadium, Rock Hill

WHEN: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.

LAST MEETING: North Augusta won 31-21 in 2011.