Abbeville football coach Jamie Nickles got a bit religious when talking about facing Southside Christian School.
“Boy, I tell you, we may need to have prayer time because they are so good at every position,” Nickles said of the Sabres (3-0), ranked No. 4 in the state. “Their quarterback is outstanding. They have one of the best running backs in the state, and their receiving corps is outstanding as well.”
Game time is 7:30 tonight at Hite Stadium in Abbeville. The contest between the Class 2A powerhouses is billed as the Lakelands Game of the Week; however, one might get very few arguments if you called it the best game in the state.
The teams met last year in the Upper State championship game in Simpsonville with a berth in the state title contest on the line. Southside Christian took a one-point lead with 2:34 remaining in the fourth quarter, but former Abbeville running back Cortney Jackson took the ensuing kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown, and the Panthers advanced with a 28-21 victory. They went on to rout Barnwell for their fourth consecutive state title.
“Last year was a really tough way to lose,” Sabres coach Mike Sonneborn said. “I feel like we had them beat, but they just made a play at the end. That’s what championship programs do.”
No. 1-ranked Abbeville (2-0) comes into the game following a 20-0 win against Class 3A Emerald. It was much closer than the score would indicate. Emerald had three costly turnovers — and turned the ball over on downs twice inside Abbeville territory.
Southside Christian is fresh off a 37-10 pasting of Class 3A Woodruff.
“It seems like we play Abbeville more than any other team in the state,” Sonneborn joked.
The teams could not be more opposite, which makes this tilt even more intriguing. Abbeville is a run-oriented team that operates out of the A-bone formation. Last week’s Lakelands Player of the Week, J.D. Moore, a wingback for the Panthers, and Martico Jackson lead the team in rushing. Jackson has 24 carries for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Moore has 236 yards on 32 carries and has scored three touchdowns.
“I think, defensively, you prepare for a scheme and not a player,” Sonneborn said. “So, the A-bone is what we prepare for. While there will be some difference in how they attack you, your assignment doesn’t change.”
The Sabres run a spread offense, led by J.W. Hertzberg, a 6-foot-3 senior quarterback who has accounted for 10 touchdowns and has nearly a 70% pass-completion rate. The Marist College commit is joined in the backfield by bruising running back Mallory Pinkney, who has 38 carries for 365 yards and eight TDs.
“It’s night and day from what we were playing against last week on offense,” Nickles said. “Emerald’s philosophy is more in line with us, whereas Southside Christian is a true spread football team. Remember all those (Southside) receivers that graduated? There are a couple of guys you’ve never seen before that are pretty dadgum good. I’m anxious to see how they are in person.”
The Southside Christian offense lost two key receivers to graduation: wide receiver Bryson Cheek, who plays at Presbyterian College, and tight end Lucas Raber, who is at Davidson.
Sabres receiver Hosea Mattison, who has drawn interest from Virginia Tech, Appalachian State and S.C. State, has 15 catches for 297 yards and six TDs this year.
Southside Christian averages 370 yards of total offense per game. The Sabres have amassed 490 yards through the air and 627 on the ground.
Pinkney, a 217-pound senior, has drawn interest from Appalachian State and Georgia State. He runs behind a big, veteran offensive line, which includes four-year starters Jeremy Costin and Jasper Peeler.
The Sabres employ a 4-2-5 defense most of the time. It’s a scheme that puts two defensive ends at the line of scrimmage. Abbeville’s A-bone formation often sends wingbacks to the corners on sweeps, so Southside will look to contain off-tackle runs with their ends.
“We are very cable of scoring points in bunches, and our defense is doing a nice job of playing assignment football,” Sonneborn said. “I think we need to improve on winning third down and cleaning up some assignments on offense. I think field position and ball control will be vital for both teams. Not making a critical turnover is was we need to avoid.”
Defensive back Jayden Martin, who has an offer from Marist, has three interceptions for the Sabres, and linebacker Jackson Dorris has an offer from Presbyterian College.
“We have a nice mix of seniors and underclassmen,” Sonneborn said. “We have a really strong senior class this year, and they have played a lot of football together.”
Both teams have outstanding kickers. Abbeville’s Dylan Beauford made The All-Lakelands Team as a junior and had a pair of 45-plus-yard fields goals and more than 50 touchbacks last year. Sabres kicker Michael Long is 1 for 2 on field goals and has made 19 of 20 PATs this season.
Defensively, the Panthers are big up front and can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Talented linebacker Cruz Temple, who injured his foot in a game two weeks ago, is a game-time decision, Nickles said. Temple also plays some at running back, along with Jackson, Moore, Tyrell Haddon and Quadarius Guillebeaux.
The Panthers lost their top two running backs to graduation last year, which led Moore, who quarterbacked the team in 2018, to move to wingback this season. Thomas Beauford is taking snaps, but he’s not as big of a threat for breakaway runs as Moore was under center. Moore was needed at wingback this season to provide some speed that was missing on the corners.
Abbeville has not lost in three seasons, dating back to the Panthers’ defeat to traditional Class 4A powerhouse Hartsville in 2017. Abbeville hosts Hartsville Sept. 27 following a bye week.