Note: "Tonight" in the story refers to Friday.

As conference football games for the McDowell Titans go, they just don’t get any bigger than this.

The Titans (3-2) open Mountain Athletic 4A/3A Conference play tonight against T.C. Roberson (4-1) in the annual homecoming game (7 p.m. kickoff).

The Titans and Rams are the split conference’s only two 4A clubs, so tonight’s game will almost certainly go a long way toward deciding who will get the top spot (the MAC recognizes both a 4A and 3A champ in all team sports).

As if that doesn’t add enough gravity to the situation, there’s also the fact tonight’s game might well be played in front of the biggest Titan Stadium crowd of the season. Throw in the tidbit about McDowell head coach Andy Morgan’s and assistant Scott Helms’ recent tenures as Roberson assistant coaches, and things become even more serious.

“We told the kids they get to play for a championship in front of a big crowd on homecoming, and you can’t set it up any better than that,” said Morgan. “It’s not about Scott and me, though. It’s McDowell versus Roberson. I’m down here now, and it’s where I wanted to be. I’m a diehard Titan. That was the past, and this is the future.”

Historically, the Titans have fared about as poorly as possible against the Rams. McDowell is 0-9 all-time against Roberson since the series began in 2005.

But recent years have seen some tight games between the two.

Last season, the Titans and Rams were tied at 14-14 headed into the fourth quarter of a tense struggle. Roberson finally broke through and got the upper hand when it scored on a long halfback pass with just more than nine minutes left to play, and ended up winning 28-14. McDowell was competitive from start to finish, despite throwing five interceptions.

Two years ago, the Titans nearly pulled off the upset in a wild, 36-34 Rams victory that saw McDowell quarterback Casey Ray throw for a school-record 348 yards.

If tonight’s contest is to be as tight as the last two, the Titans will have to overcome their primary obstacle – turnovers. McDowell is minus-6 in the category this season, and many of the Titans’ miscues have seemed to come at the most inopportune times.

Morgan said he thinks the offense, and junior quarterback Ben Ballew, are moving in the right direction where turnovers are concerned.

“Part of it is having a first-year quarterback six games into the season who is trying too hard to make things happen,” said Morgan. “And a lot of it is our (coach’s) fault. I think I got a little ahead of myself and added a few too many pass routes against certain coverages too early.

“But we’re due a game where we put it all together, and I hope that comes sooner rather than later.”

And there have been flashes of offensive brilliance. Ballew is 63-for-106 passing for 652 yards and four touchdowns with 10 picks, several of which came on tipped passes. He has spread the pigskin around nicely to receivers like Chase Justice (26 receptions, 288 yards, 2 TDs), Tyler Banks (12-137) and Dakota Effler (12-110-TD).

Tailback Terion Camp (54 carries, 223 yards, TD) had the Titans’ longest play from scrimmage of the year last Friday, a 58-yard touchdown run in a 13-3 win over Owen. Fellow running back Matthew Moss (42-211) tallied a season-high 91 yards on the ground in the win.

Meanwhile, McDowell’s defense limited Owen to a field goal on the opening drive of the game and didn’t bend the rest of the way. The Titans allowed just 102 yards and five first downs after the first quarter.

McDowell will have to play similar football in order to have a chance tonight: Roberson is no joke.

The Rams have gone up against a pair of heavyweights in their last two outings. Roberson rallied in the second half on Sept. 9 to defeat Freedom 24-18 in Morganton. Last week, the Rams hung tough on the road against powerful Crest before falling 20-7.

Roberson quarterback, sophomore Ty Gossett (6-3, 215), has gone 66-of-131 passing for 932 yards and five scores with nine interceptions. Barshia Young (14-246-2TDs) and Micah Jenkins (13-282-TD) have been his favorite targets. Running back Shaq Gist (5-10, 185) leads the Rams in rushing, with 194 yards and four TDs on 52 carries.

Defensively, the Rams are led by a pair of solid inside linebackers, Logan Wells (80 tackles, 13 tackles for loss) and Zach Myers (58 tackles). Defensive ends Jordan McNeil (14 TFL, 9 sacks) and Greg Johnston (15 TFL, 8.5 sacks) have provided a consistent pass rush off the corners. Both are in the 6-foot-3, 220-pound range.

The Rams have several solid front people, but it’s impossible not to notice senior guard Dayquan Watkins, who is 6-foot-7, 340 pounds. Watkins leads the team with 17 pancake blocks.

Speaking of line play, it will be especially important for the Titans tonight on the defensive side of the ball. Senior tackle Ishman Martino will miss tonight’s game with a concussion, and Morgan added the rest of Martino’s season might be in jeopardy. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior was just hitting his stride after missing a couple games early. Martino is second only to linebacker Damon McNeely in tackles with 28, and also had two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack.

Morgan said the Titans would use a variety of players along the defensive front in an effort to fill Martino’s shoes.