Pierce County returns to the gridiron Friday night when the Bears travel to Homerville to face Clinch County in a matchup of Top 5 teams in different classifications.

PCHS (2-1), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Class 3A third-ranked team, enters after a bye week and fresh off back-to-back road shutouts at Wayne County and Claxton.

“We had a great week of practice,” said head coach Ryan Herring referencing the break. “It gave us a chance to give our bodies some rest and a chance to heal. It was about taking care of us ... there was not a lot of contact.”

The Panthers (1-2), the newly minted AJC Class A fifth-ranked team, are coming off a 40-14 beating of previously Class A No. 6 Pelham following a 26-0 season-opening loss to now Class A third-ranked Macon County and a 33-6 loss to current Class 3A sixth-ranked Appling County.

Friday’s meeting is the 16th between the two programs and first since 2011 in Homerville won 14-13 by the Panthers. Clinch County owns a 12-3 advantage in a series that dates back to 1981 — the first game in PCHS history. Pierce County upset the top-ranked Panthers 22-14 and followed with a 27-0 home in 1982.

The Panthers have won 12 of the last 13 matchups including seven straight at home and are 7-2 when ranked in the series. This is the second meeting between the schools when both are ranked. No. 13 Clinch County won a 7-3 home decision over the No. 10 Bears in 1994.

“Clinch is Clinch,” Herring said of the 2021 Panthers’ version. “They get after it on both sides of the ball. They are a very tough team to beat at home. We have our work cut out for us.”

The third-year head coach said talk of a new offensive scheme from the single-wing to the spread was more of a wrinkle for the Panthers.

“You are always going to get the single-wing or Notre Dame box,” said Herring. “That’s what they do. There is a chance they may spread out, but no matter what you’ve got to be ready for the running game.

“We’ve got to get up and be physical. They (Panthers) like the inside and off tackle power game. There will also be some mis-direction. They also like running plays on the edge.”

Senior Elijah Tiller (5-foot-10, 163 lbs.) quarterbacks the offensive unit. He leads the team in rushing through the first three games. Classmate Amazi Williams (5-9, 190) rushed for 102 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries in the win at Pelham.

Pierce County’s power running game will operate against a split 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the staple of the Panthers’ success over the years.

“They are going to keep eight in the box and make it hard to find running lanes,” Herring said. “That’s going to be a challenge for us. We’ve got to do our job and stay on blocks.

“The key for us is running downhill getting north and south. We can’t run east and west and find a lot of success.”

Junior defensive lineman Demonte Massey (6-2, 270) blocked two punts and returned an interception for a touchdown and junior free safety Tucker Robbins returned an interception for a score in Clinch County’s win at Pelham.

Senior middle linebacker Omarioun McRae (5-8, 175) is the leading tackler.