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Road will only get tougher for Monroe vs. Baldwin

Monroe QB Charles Stafford and the Tornadoes hit the road to face state power Baldwin in 
the first round tonight of the GHSA Class AAA state playoffs. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Monroe QB Charles Stafford and the Tornadoes hit the road to face state power Baldwin in the first round tonight of the GHSA Class AAA state playoffs. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY -- Rhythm.

That's the secret.

Honest. Talk to the kids at Monroe, and that's what they'll tell you. No one is sure just what the backbeat is, but they know it's there.

"I'll take the Temptations,'' shouted Monroe coach Charles Truitt, an old-school voice who believes his new-school Tornadoes can make a run in the Class AAA state playoffs.

They start tonight in Milledgeville against 10th-ranked Baldwin, a program that knows all about winning in November.

"They do,'' Truiit said of Baldwin's past playoff success. "And that helps them because they have been here before, and I know teams will look at our record (5-5) and think we're an easy team to beat in the playoffs. But we are a team to be reckoned with. Our kids have confidence, especially on offense.''

Why?

"We are so much better now than at the beginning of the year,'' Monroe running back Brandon Gordon said. "At the beginning of the year we didn't have our rhythm. Now our offense has it's rhythm. We know we can move the ball."

Monroe might be 5-5, but the Tornadoes have won four of their last five games and the loss -- 28-25 to Crisp County -- was almost as good as a win. Crisp scored three short TDs after turnovers set up the Cougars to take a 21-0 lead, and Monroe stormed back and scored 25 points in the second half.

"I think the turning point of our season was the second half of the Crisp game,'' Truitt said. "We came back and scored 25 points in the second half and the offense came together. I think it woke us up.''

But a couple of other things have happened in the past five games, including last week's do-or-die, 27-10, win against city rival Westover that sent Monroe to the playoffs. The offensive line has been dominating teams, and Gordon has emerged as a star in the backfield. He has gained more than 100 yards in four of the last five games and gives Monroe balance. After all, Herald Dynamite Dozen selection Devine Noel, who plays running back, flanker and starts in the secondary, can pound the ball between the tackles or break a big run.

"They're Thunder and Lightning,'' Truitt said. "Brandon is the slasher and Devine can be a power runner if we need him to be one. It's a good combination.''

"Thunder and Lightning" have added a dimension to an offense that can light it up against anyone, because sophomore quarterback Charles Stafford, who has thrown for more than 1,400 yards this season, can put the ball in the middle of a cup of coffee or throw it across the Grand Canyon.

"He is a talented young quarterback, and he throws a very catchable pass,'' Truitt said. "And we have big time receivers to catch it.''

Kevin Williams and Terevious Hudson, both juniors, are the top receivers, and Hudson is coming off a huge game against Westover during which he caught five passes for 130 yards and two TDs, including a beauty on a fade to the right corner of the end zone and a 62-yarder that broke Westover's back to give Monroe a 27-3 lead.

Stafford will need another big game tonight because Baldwin brings a mobile and talented quarterback into the playoffs who can be a game-changer. DeAndra Thomas runs as well as he throws -- and everyone on Monroe's defense knows it.

"We know we have to stop him,'' linebacker Vantrel McMillan said. "We can't let him get outside. We have to stay disciplined and make sure we stop him. If we stop (Thomas), we'll beat Baldwin. Period!''

Truitt knows his defense will have to stop Thomas if Monroe hopes to win tonight.

"He's the guy,'' Truitt said. "He triggers their offense. He's athletic and he runs and throws the ball real well. We can't be chasing him. We've got to execute on defense and make sure we contain him.''

Monroe's D has been stingy of late.

With the exception of the first half against Crisp, Monroe's defense has allowed more than one touchdown only once in its last five games and that was in a 29-14 win against Dougherty in which the Tornadoes had the game well in hand.

Stafford can keep Monroe in any game, and his offensive line has become a force down the stretch. Led by Herald Dynamite Dozen selection Hakeem Porter, Stafford has had time to throw and the running backs have had big holes to run through. If Stafford has time to throw he can pick teams apart.

"Our offensive line has been wonderful,'' Truitt said. "This game is going to be won in the trenches, and I think we will have an advantage there.''

So does Gordon.

"The offensive line has just gotten better and better,'' he said. "They're making great blocks and the holes are bigger -- way bigger. We're going to the playoffs with a lot of confidence. We're getting better every week. We've got our rhythm now.''

And Monroe would like to give Baldwin the blues.

It won't be easy. Baldwin has lost only to seventh-ranked Peach County, which won the Region 2-AAA title last week with a 17-14 win against Baldwin, and fourth-ranked Burke County. The Braves won eight in a row between those losses, and will be huge favorites tonight.

That doesn't faze Monroe.

"We're all starting over,'' Truitt said. "There are 32 teams and everyone is 0-0. The last two weeks we've played with a sense of urgency, and we are going into the playoffs with a lot of confidence. Everyone knows it's one and done. I think we'll be ready.''