The Eagles (4-3, 2-1 Region 6A-A) will host Darlington at Mt. Zion Stadium with the winner needing to just win their final regular-season game to enter the region play-in game as the sub-region champions out of Region 6A-A.
Even though Darlington (5-2, 3-0) has had an easy time with MZ in all six meetings, including winning in each of the last four years by a combined score of 177-37, the Eagles have already done things the team hasn't achieved in quite some time. Even the three losses this season have come by a combined nine points, including a pair of one-point losses.
"We've kind of hung our hat on the fact that we want to be able to play with anybody on our schedule. When the fourth quarter comes around, we want to be in a position to have a chance to win. That's our goal in every game, and that will be the goal again this week. I know Darlington's got a very good football team, but we'll hopefully hang around," MZ coach Keith Holloway said.
The Tigers are coming off a 31-0 shutout against Gordon Lee and have shown they are capable on both sides of the ball. On defense, Darlington has a pair of shutouts and only gave up more than 20 points twice this season — both came in their opening-season losses. Holloway described the Tiger defense as an aggressive group, basing in a 4-4 set.
On offense, Darlington is led by senior quarterback Brad Butler.
"They've got a veteran ball team. They've won the region the last three years. They've got one of the best quarterbacks, I think, in the state. I'm sure he'll be playing on Saturday somewhere next year," Holloway said. "They do a lot offensively and make you prepare for a lot of formations. They throw the ball about as much as they run it. They're balanced offensively. We'll have our hands full with that."
For seniors like Garrett Frazier, who does a little bit of everything on the football field, this is the type of season and game he has been waiting four years for — and now it's finally here.
"It would mean a whole lot [to beat Darlington]. I'm just surprised how well we're playing. I knew we would play good, but I didn't actually think this good," Frazier said. "It's going to be a fun game. A brutal game, too."
Throughout the season, the Eagles have risen above expectations led by the first-year coach. They have done it through hard work.
"Our kids have really responded well this year. They've really paid the price, as the coaching staff sees it, and bought into what we're trying to do. I think, fundamentally, we've gotten better every week and that was our goal. We're not making as many mental mistakes as we did early in the year, not turning the ball over. We're not a big-play team, but we have done a pretty good job of controlling the ball on offense and running the clock," Holloway said.
"Defensively, our defense has played better than expected, in my opinion. Our linebackers have gotten better every week. Coach [Brad] Gordon and the defensive staff has done a good job of preparing them every week."
A win against Darlington would set up a situation where with another win against Gordon Lee next week, the Eagles would win the sub-division and be in a position to earn a playoff spot without having to resort to the new Class A power rankings.
"It's huge. With Darlington defeating Gordon Lee last week, 31-0, it gives us a little perspective on their skill and how hard we need to work this week. Really, we need this victory. A victory will put us first in the sub-division, which will set us up for Gordon Lee next week and the crossover game after it," junior lineman Will Sizemore said.
No matter how the season ends for MZ, it will be considered a success, but that doesn't mean it isn't still trying for the ultimate prize.
"We're just real pleased with the progress we've made, but at the same time, we want more. We want to be a playoff contender, and we know these next three games are huge. We'll prepare, go out and play hard," Holloway said.