Tuesday, October 22, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Jacksonville meets LRCA in a playoff atmosphere

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils hit the road this week for another playoff-type game as they travel to west Little Rock to take on Little Rock Christian Academy.

Jacksonville has taken the playoff-style approach since losing to Sylvan Hills two weeks ago, meaning they almost certainly need to win out to guarantee an actual spot in the class 5A postseason tournament, and have a minimum of four conference wins to have any shot at all at the playoffs.

Right now, the Red Devils are 2-2 in the 5A Central with three conference games remaining. Little Rock Christian Academy has the same overall record as Jacksonville at 3-4, and is 1-3 in league play.

“It’s a big game for both teams,” said Jacksonville coach Rick Russell. “I’m sure they think they have to get to four wins to have a shot, and that’s the same boat we’re in. So I’m expecting an exciting, playoff-type atmosphere.”

Jacksonville had its best game defensively last week, shutting out North Pulaski 36-0. The formation that defense will see this week will be a familiar one, but what happens out of it will be new for the Red Devils.

Jacksonville has faced spread teams several times this season, and faces one every day in practice. But of all the teams its faced so far, only the Warriors throw out of it up to 50-plus times per game.

“They’re going to throw the football,” Russell said. “They’ve thrown it 48, 52 and 58 times the past three weeks.

“They’ve got a quarterback who can get it to them. They’ve got a couple of pretty good receivers and they do have a little bit of a running game, so you can’t just pin your ears back because you’ll run right by him as they’re handing him the ball.”

Russell does believe his team needs to get good pressure on the quarterback, but indicates much of the pressure will be on the pass coverage unit. The Warriors will throw downfield, but the bulk of their offense is built around short passing plays off quick throws.

“It’s a lot different,” Russell said. “They run a lot more wide stuff, a lot of bubble screens. They’ll line trips up to one side and throw it out to the wide receiver with blockers in front of him. They put a lot of pressure on you with the quick passing game. It’s hard to defend a 5-yard pass. That doesn’t sound like much for a pass play, but 5 yards a play will get you down the field.”

Recognizing the formation will go a long way in helping the Red Devil defenders be successful.

“That’s it, we’ve got to recognize,” Russell said. “They’re going to let us know pretty much what we’re about to face. We just have to recognize the formation and get lined up right. That’ll go a long ways. After that we have to play sound technique and tackle the football.

“We took some steps in the right direction last week and we need to now start building on that.”

Though they’ve lost four times, only Sylvan Hills seems to have solved the riddle on how to stop the Warrior offense, holding it to one touchdown in a 35-7 win. Outside of that game, LRCA has averaged 32 points per game. The Warrior defense hasn’t been as impressive. Throw out its best effort, holding winless and injury-riddled North Pulaski to six points, it has given up an average of 38 points per game – 32 including the North Pulaski game.

Jacksonville started three sophomores on the offensive line last week. It’s an idea that coaches toyed with at the start of the season. Feeling a need to keep players on one side of the ball as much as possible, they went with it last week and it seemed to go well.

“In preseason, the prospects of having three sophomores on the line worries you a little,” Russell said. “But it’s go time now. You have to do what you think is best. We’re playing a series of one-game seasons right now.”

Jacksonville has run two different offenses the last several weeks, with each one looking good on different occasions. It was the passing game, led by senior quarterback Reggie Barnes, that North Pulaski was unable to deal with last week while the running game sputtered at times.

Last week also saw the return of receiver Terrell Moore, who was expected to be an impact player until suffering an injury in summer 7-on-7 that had him sidelined until last week.

Moore did not have a major impact on last week’s game, but the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder still has the tools to become a major part of the offense.

“We’ve sort of been waiting on him,” Russell said. “He came to us and said he was ready to play last week. We’re going to work him every day in practice this week and see how he progresses. We’d like to get him involved if he thinks he can go.”

Even without Moore, the Red Devils have no shortage of capable receivers. And Barnes had one of his best games at getting them the ball last week. But inaccuracy hasn’t been the only problem in the Jacksonville offense. Pass coverage and dropped passes have also plagued the passing game this season. All those things looked better last week.

“Reggie did some good things,” Russell said. “The line gave him some time and did some things I was really proud of. We’ve been working on our screens, and I thought we got out and blocked pretty well on those.”

The Red Devils and Warriors kick off at 7 p.m. Friday.A