After a close loss to Madison County on Oct. 2, North Jackson head coach Chandler Tygard said his football team needed to learn how to win close games.
In Week 8, the Chiefs finally broke through, rallying late in the fourth quarter to defeat St. John Paul II 25-21. A week later, they pulled off the feat again with a late score to defeat New Hope 33-28.
“I said it then, ‘all it takes is (to win) one and then you know how,” Tygard said.
North Jackson (6-3) hopes that its new-found-skill serves it well as it heads into the regular-season finale and the postseason.
The Chiefs close out regular season play this week when they host Class 6A Fort Payne in the renewal of a once-annual rivalry matchup. Kickoff is set for Friday at 7 p.m. at North Jackson High School’s R.D. Hicks Stadium in Stevenson.
The game is the 19th meeting between the Chiefs and Wildcats and the first since 2013. North Jackson leads the series 11-7, but Fort Payne has won the last four meetings. The teams met annually from 1988-2001 before the series took a seven-year hiatus. They played again during the 2008-09 seasons and again during the 2012-13 campaigns.
Friday’s game is a matchup of playoff-bound teams. North Jackson is the No. 3-seed from Class 4A Region 7 and will play at Good Hope in the first round for the 4A playoffs. Fort Payne (6-3) is the runner-up in Class 6A Region 7 and plays Gardendale in 6A’s opening round.
Fort Payne had its six-game winning streak snapped last week in a 49-14 region loss to defending Class 6A state champion and No. 1-ranked Oxford. Before that loss to Oxford, the Wildcats defeated Pell City 42-20 after surviving last-second wins over Scottsboro 41-34 and Southside 28-27.
“They run the ball well and have a good QB that’s dangerous when he runs and hits his shots when he takes them deep,” Tygard said. “A lot of their plays look the same so it’s difficult to get keys.”
Running back Hunter Love has 1,016 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 202 carries for Fort Payne while quarterback J.D. Blalock has 529 rushing yards and six scores on 82 carries. The next highest Fort Payne rusher has just 162 yards. Blalock is 68-of-120 passing for 1,031 yards and nine touchdowns, with Cam Thomas catching 32 passes for 538 yards and four scores.
Fort Payne also features nationally-rated kicker/punter recruit Alex McPherson, whose older brother is the kicker at Florida. The younger McPherson has made 9-of-14 field goals and 32-of-33 extra points.
“The kicker is unbelievable,” Tygard said. “He’s ridiculously strong-legged.”
Meanwhile, North Jackson’s late-season resurgence — after starting 3-0 and then losing three straight, the Chiefs have won their last three games — has seen a shift in offensive philosophy necessitated by injuries and departures.
The Chiefs’ pass heavy offense has leaned more on the run of late after running more plays from the old single-wing formation, with senior wide receiver Nigel Lanier taking most of the snaps from that formation.
“Because of everything, basically we got to where he had to get our best 11 guys out there and see what we could do,” Tygard said. “It started just a red zone kind of thing but grew from there. We’ve gone from throwing for 400 (yards) to running for 300, and we’ve still thrown it pretty well.”
North Jackson lost two receivers and a tight end early in last week’s game, so the formation helped offset those injuries. Tygard said Monday he’s unsure if or how many of those injured players will be ready Friday.
“Next man up,” he said. “We just gotta go figure it out and do what we can to win.”