Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SPORTS>>Big, bad Blue Devils roll into town

Leader sports editor

Last Friday against Little Rock Parkview, it was missed opportunities. This Friday, when Jacksonville hosts top-ranked West Memphis, it may be a matter of just trying to find opportunities.

The 7-0-1 Blue Devils, 5-0 in the 6A-East, have received only one challenge all season, when West Helena played them to a 14-14 tie. There has been no fingernail biting since, as West Memphis has outscored its conference foes 332-55.

Kickoff is 7 p.m.

“This is the fastest West Memphis team I can remember,” said Red Devil head coach Mark Whatley, whose team squandered five chances inside Parkview territory last week in a 21-6 loss. “They present the same problems. They reload every year from their three feeder schools.”

For Jacksonville, it might be tempting to look past this one toward Marion in Week 10, a game which may well determinethe fourth seed from the East. Of course, they won’t do that.

“It’s one at a time, and you have to do the best you can,” Whatley said.

The scenario stacks up like this: The Red Devils (4-4, 3-2) hold a one-game lead over Mountain Home and Marion. The Patriots must travel to 6-2 Jonesboro this Friday. A Jacksonville win over Marion a week from Friday would give the Red Devils the nod over the Patriots for the No. 4 seed, no matter what happens this Friday night. Mountain Home hosts Parkview Friday and closes at Searcy.

But before the Red Devils can start thinking about the postseason, they’ll need to shore up some ongoing problems right now.

Last week, it was the failure to finish off drives. Six times the Red Devils traveled into Patriot territory. Five times – the last five of the night – they came away with nothing.

“That was the biggest thing last week,” Whatley said. “That just killed us. The defense gave us an opportunity to put some heat on them.”

The encouraging thing for Whatley was the way the offense moved at times. What was discouraging was that it relied way too much on the big play. In other words, there was a lot of inconsistent movement of the football – and very little on the ground.

Patrick Geans could find little running room, while backfield mate Keith Rodgers had some nice runs on his way to 43 yards on seven carries.

“We’ve got to give him the ball more,” Whatley said. “He’s a north and south runner and that’s what you need running out of the Spread.”

Sophomore quarterback Logan Perry turned in another solid performance, completing 19 of 34 passes for 203 yards. But he was sacked four times.

“On the whole, the line is doing a pretty good job,” Whatley said. “Sometimes those sacks are coverage sacks or it’s a back not picking up the blitz.”

When Perry did find time to throw, most often it was to Demetris Harris and Terrell Brown. Brown caught eight passes for 119 yards. Harris, who had no receptions at halftime, finished with five, but for just 48 yards.

The running game netted just 22 yards.

As good as the upstart Patriots have been, the challenge this Friday is going to be a whole lot stiffer. Despite not having its starting quarterback the past two weeks, the Blue Devils have not missed a beat. Last week, Robert Sorrell stepped in and actually added another dimension to a potent offense by completing 4 of 7 passes for 76 yards.

But West Memphis will once again be doing it mostly on the ground behind three or four runners, whose numbers are limited because the Blue Devils are winning by an average margin of 35 points.

The top backs are fullback Alvin Nelson, tailbacks Michael Hayes and J.C. Austin and wingback Mario James. All have touchdown runs of 47 yards or more and all are extremely fast.

That means Jacksonville must execute flawlessly on Friday and that’s something the Red Devils have not come close to doing this season on a consistent basis.

“It seems like about every three weeks we’re not executing the way we need to,” Whatley said. “If we don’t this Friday, it could get ugly in a hurry. They’re a very good football team, a very physical team.”