Wednesday, September 25, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Red Devils take effort to Cougars

Leader sports editor

Jacksonville made it through two tough weeks to start the 2013 football season, and got its first win last Friday, beating Maumelle 27-20 in a very physically and emotionally taxing game. This week, the Red Devils hope to carry that momentum on their first long road trip when they face the Helena-West Helena Central Cougars on Friday on the banks of the Mississippi River.

“I’m just as proud as I can be of this team’s mental toughness,” said Jacksonville coach Rick Russell. “These kids had every opportunity to get their heads down and fold it up. They didn’t do that. They kept working hard at getting better every week. Results on the field weren’t what we wanted those first two weeks, but you can see the improvement. We still haven’t played a complete football game as far as doing everything right that we work on. But as far as everyone playing hard for 48 minutes, we got that done on Friday.”

Jacksonville suffered losses to Cabot and Benton in its first two games, two teams from higher classifications that appear to be emerging as two of the better teams in their respective classes. Cabot has dominated Catholic and Conway since beating Jacksonville. Benton suffered a turnover-plagued loss in week one before coming from behind to beat Jacksonville in week two. Last week, Benton threw for almost 700 yards in a 63-31 win at Greenbrier.

Central also enters with a 1-2 record. The Cougars lost their opener 34-19 to Dollarway before beating hapless Marianna 47-6. Last week, they blew a second-half lead and lost 20-13 to the Wynne Yellowjackets.

Central is very similar to Maumelle in style and substance. The two teams have similar personnel and run the same defensive schemes. Both teams also run the spread offense, but Central will also line up in the wing T and the wishbone.

“Maumelle was a good team for us to play to get ready for this one,” Russell said. “They’re very similar. There are athletes all over the field. They both run the spread, but Helena is going to give you more looks than Maumelle. They’re liable to line up in anything from the spread to the wishbone, so it gives us more to work on.”

Jacksonville and Central met for the first time ever last year at Jan Crow Stadium in Jacksonville. The Red Devils won that game 35-0, but this year’s scores so far indicate the Cougars are much better than last year.

They should be. They started several sophomores last season, and return 10 starters on both sides of the ball.

They played the same three nonconference games last year, and results this year have been much better. Last season, the Cougars lost by 30 to Dollarway and by 43 to Wynne.

“There’s no question we’re facing a better football team than we faced last year,” Russell said. “Anytime you return basically your whole team you’re going to be better. They started a lot of sophomores last year. Those guys are all bigger and stronger and they all have a year’s worth of varsity starting experience. We’re going to have to play a good football game to get the win, and I think we can do that.”

Jacksonville lost starting tailback Lamont Gause to injury early in the second quarter last week, but he should be back for this Friday’s game. Several players suffered scrapes and bruises, but the injury report is clean for Jacksonville.

The player that perhaps took the most punishment last week was quarterback Reggie Barnes, who Russell singled out for the toughness he showed against Maumelle.

“Reggie took some hits,” Russell said. “He got hit, he got up. He got hit late, he got up. He got hit running the option, got hit on rollouts. Maumelle is a physical team, especially that defensive end. He’s an SEC player if I’ve ever seen one. But Reggie would take a shot from that guy, get up and keep throwing the ball. He gave us a winning effort and I’m just so, so proud of him. They took our running game away and he stepped up and made some great throws under pressure.

“On defense, Titus O’Neal turned in a historic performance in Jacksonville history.

Since I’ve been here, so at least since ’95, I don’t know that I’ve had a handful of kids that scored over 40 points on our defensive tackle chart for one game. He did that Friday and he had nothing left after the game. He gave everything he had.

“And really that was team wide. Everyone on the field gave great effort that whole game. We can still be so much better once we get our technique issues worked out. But the effort was there. If we can keep that up and continue to improve, we can still be an outstanding football team.”