By Craig Allen Brown
RIVERDALE, Ga. —Riverdale head football coach Rodney Hackney understands that in order to be successful in December during the postseason, his team must master the intangibles: character, composure and discipline.
The Raiders combined all three elements with a brutal running game and suffocating defense to defeat the Northwest Whitfield (Tunnel Hill, GA) Bruins, 42-17 last Friday night at Southern Crescent Stadium in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs. The win qualified Riverdale to the quarterfinal round for the first time since 1998 where it will face off against Benedictine in Savannah tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Benedictine earned its trip to the quarterfinals by scoring a 45-23 win over Cairo last Friday which was preceded by a 42-35 win against Troup County in the first round. Benedictine comes into tonight’s game boasting an offense that’s averaging close to 40 points per game, and although Hackney expects it to be a stiff test—particularly for his defense—his confidence still rides high for his bunch, and he’s still bullish about his team representing football for the South Metro Atlanta area.
“I’m proud of the kids,” Hackney said after last Friday’s game. “Our kids on the South Side get a bad rap. People in other places think we’re not disciplined. [That win] showed our character. We fought through adversity. We could have folded, but we didn’t.”
It was Riverdale’s defense that jump-started the scoring output in last week’s game. Karmari Murphy intercepted Whitfield quarterback Owen Brookers’ pass and returned it 15 yards which set up Raiders’ quarterback Avaun Rucker to score the first of his five touchdowns. Riverdale’s defense last week was as stalwart as it’s been all season. The Raiders went up 20-0 before NW Whitfield got on the board.
The Raiders have pitched five shutouts this season, and had two more scores where they only surrendered one score. They’ll come into tonight’s game surrendering just 8.5 points per game.
But just as important as the defense has been for Riverdale’s success is the hot streak Rucker is on at quarterback. He’s produced eight scores in Riverdale’s two playoff wins, and he was the one who placed the final nail in the coffin late in the fourth quarter last week with 3-yard touchdown run to cap the scoring.
On that drive, Rucker rushed on the last three plays with his third carry being a 2-yard touchdown run to help Riverdale match its highest scoring output in a playoff game in school history. Riverdale also scored 42 points in a 42-7 quarterfinals win against Dalton in the 1998 Class 3A Quarterfinals.
While Hackney’s focus lately has been on adversity, Rucker’s focus was on redemption. Rucker’s five touchdowns (three rushing, two passing) was his way of atoning for an earlier game in which he felt he did not play his best. Earlier in the season, Hackney remarked that when Rucker is on, Riverdale is a different, tougher team to beat. For that reason, it’s proper to point to Rucker’s performance during the Raiders’ current 6-game winning streak as proof.
“The Pebblebrook game was my worst game ever,” Rucker said, recalling the 20-12 loss to the Falcons back on October 2. “After that, I wanted to improve, and I didn’t want to have any more games like that.”
If Riverdale wins tonight, it will face the winner of Jefferson (12-0) vs. Carver-Columbus (10-0) next Friday in the Class AAAA semifinals.