WOODSTOCK — River Ridge coach Mike Collins had been urging his players to find their best performance.
On Friday night, the players responded.
Hosting a perennial state power in the biggest game in program history, River Ridge defeated Rome 42-10 in the second round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs.
The Knights became only the second Cherokee County team to start a season 11-0 and were utterly dominant. The win kept the best season in program history rolling in impressive fashion, and River Ridge will host Lee County next Friday in the state quarterfinals.
“I’ve been challenging them all year, telling them it’s time to peak,” Collins said. “They answered the bell and found their ‘A’ game tonight.”
From the opening drive, River Ridge imposed its will.
Jackson Head finished off the game’s opening drive with a 27-yard touchdown reception, leaping high above Rome defensive back Jaquavious Wise to haul in the pass from Carson Lathem, and dragging Wise across the goal line.
Scotty Rutherford’s extra point gave River Ridge a 7-0 lead, but the onslaught had yet to begin.
Head finished with four receptions for a game-high 94 yards, while Amehre Morrison added four receptions for 56 yards and Riley Caines had four receptions for 42 yards.
“Our coaches do a great job of putting us in positions to make plays,” Head said. “We’ve just so many guys that play their job perfectly. No one has to play outside themselves. We’ll enjoy practice next week because there are only seven other teams practicing. We’re happy to be here, but we still have stuff to prove to people.”
After stopping Rome (8-4) on its opening possession, the Knights struck again when Morrison scored one of his three touchdowns in the game. The wolves fumbled the following kickoff return and Morrison scored his second touchdown on a run up the middle, nearly untouched.
River Ridge led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, and Rome was never able to recover from the early barrage.
River Ridge outgained Rome 410-171 and tallied 17 first downs, compared to nine for Rome. Lathem finished 14-of-22 passing for 221 yards, while Morrison finished with 116 rushing yards on 25 carries. Andrew Bingham added 54 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“We knew, if we played our game, it would be like it was tonight,” Lathem said. “I knew going into the season we could be something special. Going from 3-7 to a team like we have this year is just amazing.”
E.J. Lackey, who finished with 87 yards on 15 carries to lead Rome, scored from 1 yard out early in the second quarter. The momentum was short-lived, however, as Bingham scored his first touchdown of the game later in the quarter on a 2-yard plunge.
River Ridge led 28-7 at the half.
“We expected it to be a four-quarter game, but the fact that our guys played very well doesn’t surprise me,” Collins said. “I know what this group is like, and they’ve never not answered a challenge. From the time I got here, they’ve never blinked, so I’m not surprised that they did it again tonight.”
Rome added a field goal on its opening possession of the third quarter, but that was all River Ridge would allow for the remainder of the night. The Knights stifled Rome’s rushing attack and pressured quarterback Reece Fountain in the passing game, allowing him only 88 passing yards.
Morrison and Bingham added their final scores in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
While Rome started a number of freshmen and sophomores in key positions, River Ridge entered Friday’s game relying on a group of 22 seniors. The experience was evident as the game played itself out
Only two seasons removed from a one-win campaign, Friday’s victory was that much sweeter for a senior class which, entering this year, had seen eight total victories during their time at River Ridge.
“It feels even more like we’ve earned this,” senior linebacker Aidan Bruton said. “We didn’t just walk into a winning program. We’ve built it up. It’s special to do this with your brothers — guys I’ve been playing with since sixth grade. It didn’t surprise me how tonight went.”