Valiants look for bounce back on road against Knights

VALDOSTA –– Following perhaps their toughest loss of the season, the Valwood Valiants (4-3, 1-1 Region 3-3A) look to recover tonight in Albany against the Deerfield-Windsor Knights (5-3, 2-0).

Controversy crept into the Valiants' 16-6 loss to Southland last week. Quarterback Caleb Burns' potential go-ahead touchdown run with 8:56 left in the fourth quarter was waved off as the Valiants' field goal unit trotted onto the field for the extra point.

The nixed touchdown stifled the Valiants' momentum after opening the second half with a five-play, 70-yard drive to cut the Southland lead to 9-6 early in the third quarter.

After the loss, the Valiants were visibly disappointed but getting back on the practice field this week has helped the team turn the page, coach Ashley Henderson says.

"Our kids have handled it really good," Henderson said. "We can't do anything about last week, but I think our guys have done a good job practicing hard all week, getting ready for another game. This one's just as big, if not bigger than last week. We still control our own destiny as far region seedings go. We've got two more games and this is a rivalry game for us. We know we've got to be up for Deerfield and our kids have done a good job all week preparing for them."

The Valiants defeated the Knights 28-14 in their lone meeting last season. The Knights come into tonight's game winners of their last two games––a 20-17 win against Southland in their region opener followed by a 35-20 thumping of Tiftarea.

Henderson expects the Knights to look to keep the Valiants' defense off-balance with unique offensive looks while seeking out weak spots on both sides of the ball. Henderson also looks forward to seeing the Knights' retooled defense under head coach Allen Lowe.

"They give you a ton of different formations," Henderson said of Deerfield. "Coach Lowe does a really good job finding your weakness and exploiting it. He'll look for different things until he finds it and then he's going to stick to it until you stop it. When you stop it, he's going to find something else. He does a great job with them...always has.

"Defensively, they're running a little bit different front this year––a little more of an odd front team and bringing edge pressure with that. They don't look like what they've looked like in the past defensively but they're as sound as they've ever been. They're doing something right because they're undefeated in the region right now and they've beaten two good teams so far. We're definitely the underdogs this week going into Albany."

Given their underdog status against Deerfield, the Valiants hope to shore up their pass protection in tonight's road test. Last week, the Valiants allowed the Raiders to sack Burns seven times and pressure him into incompletions on several occasions. According to Henderson, cleaning up the breakdowns and keeping Burns' jersey clean will be critical against the Knights.

"We've gotta protect our quarterback," Henderson said frankly. "When we keep Caleb upright, we're dangerous. Offensively, we're as good as anybody when we keep him standing up. When we give up hits to him and he's running for his life, we're a pretty average football team (offensively).

"A lot of our issues in pass protection (against Southland) were physical breakdowns. We've worked, started trying a couple new things in there and tried to simplify the protections as well. It's just a matter of our offense getting some continuity in there. Keep Caleb standing upright, let him complete a couple balls to get going and I think we'll be very successful offensively."

In 10 head-to-head clashes, Deerfield holds a 6-4 edge over Valwood. After losing five of the first six meetings against the Knights from 1986 to 1991, the Valiants have won three of the last four since Deerfield's move to Region 3-3A in 2014. 

With a chance to inch closer in the rivalry, Henderson admits it doesn't take much to motivate his group for this game.

"Any time we play Deerfield in any sport, it's an important game," Henderson said. "The last couple years, since we've been in the same classification, one if not both of us have been in the semis or finals those years. Last year, we both made it to the semis. The year before, we played for it. 

"Playing in this environment, it won't be anything new to either team. Their crowd––they show up for football games and it's senior night so they'll be playing with a bit of added motivation. Our kids will be ready to answer the bell––you don't have to say much to our guys except 'it's Deerfield week' for them to get up for this game."