Northwest coach Jack Wright is pretty matter of fact when breaking down No. 6 Gulf Coast. His No. 1 Rangers handed the Bulldogs a convincing 26-10 loss in the second game of the season.
Now the two teams are set to clash at 2 p.m. Saturday in the MACJC Championship Game and Wright doesn't think his opponent resembles that team from Sept. 3.
"They're a completely different team. To me I felt like they were really good on defense the first time we played them and they have only gotten better since then. I've known Coach (Chad) Huff and Coach (Steve) Davis for a long time and I knew that would happen," Wright said. "It was 100 percent predictable what they've done."
The Rangers (9-1 overall) coach was specifically talking about Gulf Coast's offensive line, which allowed quarterback A.J. Erdely to be sacked a season-worst eight times and paved the way for just 72 yards rushing as a team in the game.
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"I've had years where you're young at a few positions and it just takes two or three games for the young guys to gel and get better. If you look at their offensive line I think they're playing phenomenal right now," Wright said. "They're really blocking people. I think that's where they were young when they played us. They're playing at a really high level right now. They're going to be completely different. We know. Just turn on the tape and watch one game from Sept. 3 for five minutes and watch any of their last three or four it doesn't even look the same. It's definitely going to be big challenge."
Literally the biggest reason for the improvement was the addition of 6-foot-5, 390-pound lineman Brandon Hill. The former Alabama lineman played 2014 along Gulf Coast's offensive line but was moved to nose guard to start 2015 out of necessity. The changed lasted all of about two games before the massive lineman was returned to offensive guard.
Gulf Coast (8-2) enters Saturday's game, its first 2012 MACJC championship game since 2012, averaging 221.3 rushing yards per game, good enough for 10th nationally.
"I think it's been a group effort. Throughout the season everybody's position has improved at what they're supposed to be doing mentally, in preparation and all of the above," Huff said. "It has made the whole team better. It's been a collective (effort)."
Gulf Coast is after its 16th state championship and first since 2010. The winner receives an automatic bid to the Mississippi Bowl at Biloxi High on Dec. 6. If Northwest wins, it would clinch a berth in the national title game. If everything falls a certain way Saturday, the Bulldogs, who trail Rochester (Minn.), Snow (Utah), Butler (Kan.) and Kackawanna (Pa.) in the polls, could play their way into the national championship game.
The Rangers are the fourth No. 1 in as many weeks after rallying last week to defeat No. 17 East Central 27-20.
Even with the national implications, Huff said his team is focused on the MACJC Championship.
"I think they're obviously motivated," Huff said. "You have an opportunity to go play a No. 1 team in the country on the road. If you go up there, play well and give yourself a chance and an opportunity, it could set up for obviously a state championship, which is what we want. I don't think any of us (Northwest and Gulf Coast) are looking at the overall. You understand there's a possibility to continue to play. We want to win a state championship and have a chance to play in a bowl game.
"They know there's a lot at stake so I don't think there's any more added pressure other than more motivation if anything."
Quarterback Gardner Minshew is the guy who makes the Rangers' offense go. The Brandon High standout initially enrolled at Troy after graduating early but ended up transferring to Northwest during the summer.
Almost immediately, he clicked with his fellow Rangers. Heading into Saturday's showdown he has completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 2,663 yards and 21 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
"We've got several talented players. You don't get this far in this league without having some ability, but Gardner is kind of the glue that holds everything together," Wright said. "When we're doing pass scale, he really tests our secondary and makes them better every day and defend the whole field if somebody is open."
He has plenty of targets, with four receivers pulling in 23 or more passes. Marquisian Chapman leads the team with 42 receptions and seven touchdowns to go along with 597 yards. Jacob McCrary leads Northwest with 626 yards and has 35 receptions. Running back Justin Crawford is one of the best running backs in the country. His 1,395 yards rank second nationally, just 31 yards behind the leader, and his 13 rushing touchdowns are sixth. He's also a threat in the passing game, with 25 receptions for 327 yards and five touchdowns.
Erdely has been a big reason for Gulf Coast's success, completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns against three interceptions. Former Ocean Springs standout Ishmel Morrow leads the receiving corps with 45 receptions for 598 yards and four touchdowns. Gulfport's Jonathan Nance and Jevon Floyd have 28 receptions for 327 yards and 24 receptions for 307 yards respectively. Both former Admirals have one receiving touchdown. Biloxi's Tevaris McCormick has 19 receptions for 195 yards and three touchdowns. He has also rushed for four scores on 22 carries.
Sophomore Chris Robinson leads Gulf Coast's ground attack, rushing for 708 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ge'Vonte Jones and T'Rod Daniels have proved to be home run threats when called upon. Jones has rushed for 516 yards and five touchdowns, while Daniels, averaging 7.5 yards per carry, has rushed for 427 yards and four touchdowns.