Tuesday, November 05, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Jacksonville hoping to beat Bruins

Leader sports editor

There’s no way to put it other than to say that the 2013 football season has been a disappointing one for the Jacksonville Red Devils. Expectations were soaring in the offseason and gained altitude over the summer when they enjoyed such a successful 7-on-7 campaign, including a Top-8 finish in the nearly 30-team, five-state Shootout of the South tournament in Little Rock.

The host team of that tournament will also be Jacksonville’s host at 7 p.m. Friday in the season finale for the Red Devils. It’s the season finale because Jacksonville can’t make the playoffs, even if it beats the Bruins and finishes in fourth place. The best the Red Devils can do is tie for fourth, and they lose the tiebreaker with any of the teams it could tie with.

There is still great motivation for the team. A game against Pulaski Academy is always inspiration to play your best. Jacksonville became a thorn in the Bruins’ side over the summer, beating them two out of three times, including at the Shootout, when a bid to keep playing on day two was on the line.

But the two teams have gone in opposite directions since the real season began. Pulaski Academy was supposed to in a rebuilding year after losing three Division I players from last year’s team. Instead, the Bruins have exceeded everyone’s expectations and boast a perfect 9-0 record.

For Jacksonville, even the most faithful Red Devil fan knew it would have an uphill battle in week one against Cabot, who is also 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in class 7A. But expectations were such that the team and many fans sincerely felt the Red Devils could be 8-1 and undefeated in conference, and that this week’s game would be for the outright 5A Central title.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Jacksonville is 4-5 and 3-3 after losing by three scores at West Helena, and dropping close games against Sylvan Hills and Mills.

The passing game that looked good most of the summer failed to ever materialize as a consistent threat. Injuries and academic attrition turned a deep and talented group of linemen into a small group that had to play on both sides of the football much of the time. Quarterback play didn’t reach the level needed to be effective in new offensive coordinator Adam Thrash’s offense, and dropped passes plagued the team all season long. The running game was stellar at times. Line and downfield blocking improved as the season ran its course. Junior tailback Lamont Gause showed glimpses of becoming a walking highlight reel, but at times also showed a propensity for losing his grip on the football.

Despite all of that, Jacksonville still has a chance to continue to be a thorn and hand Pulaski Academy its first loss of the season. In the brief moments this year when all the pieces seemed to be working together, Jacksonville has torched opponents with long drives and big plays, even against the better teams its played.

The Red Devils looked like they were going to score at will for a quarter and a half against Benton. And when option quarterback Robert Knowlin went down with an injury against Sylvan Hills, the passing game was unstoppable in the fourth quarter against Sylvan Hills.

If they can get that kind of execution for an entire game, Friday’s game could be an interesting one.

Jacksonville coach Rick Russell believes his team has bounced back from the disappointment and has been pleasantly surprised how they’ve approached practice this week knowing the playoffs are not a possibility.

“It was a heartbreaking loss and there was a lot of disappointment Friday night,” Russell said of the 21-14 loss to Mills that ended Jacksonville’s playoff aspirations. “But I’m proud of how they responded. The seniors have one more game together, and it’s Pulaski Academy. You still have a chance to accomplish something no one in this conference has accomplished, and that’s beat PA.”

Most of the teams in the 5A Central run the spread offense, so the defensive approach won’t be much different this week, it will just have to be better.

“It’s not much different than any other spread team,” Russell said. “They run a lot of different plays out of similar formations. So they’re not going to tell you much with how they line up. We just have to get lined up right and execute with them. That’s what they do better than most is they execute.”

Quarterback Reggie Barnes was knocked out of last week’s game after a huge blind-side hit. His return is still questionable, but Jacksonville will still keep its passing scheme in place and go with junior Caleb Price at quarterback, as well as Knowlin.

“We’re going to throw some formations at them that they haven’t seen from us,” Russell said. “Hopefully that will give them some problems. Other than that, we just have to execute.”