Monday, November 10, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Devils complete turnaround, qualify for playoffs

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils punched their ticket to the playoffs on Thursday, beating Little Rock McClellan 16-7 at Lion Stadium and completing an improbable turnaround.

Red Devil head coach Barry Hickingbotham had trouble containing his emotions after the game, as he contemplated how his players bounced back from a 1-6 start to the season to go 4-3 in conference play and make the playoffs.

“These kids never gave up,” said Hickingbotham, choking back tears. “And would’ve been so easy to. I’m so proud of them. They never stopped working hard.”

Neither team was able to get anything going offensively in the first half, but both got into the end zone once.

McClellan was able to put together a few nice plays, but made a series of crucial mistakes that helped keep Jacksonville close early.

Jacksonville had just 4 total yards after its first three drives, but McClellan piled up the penal ties and fumbled the ball four times in the first half. The Lions didn’t lose any of the fumbles, but three of them went for negative yards. They also dropped a certain touchdown pass in the end zone and another deep pass went through the arms of an open receiver. It all added up to too many mistakes. Jacksonville made adjustments and dominated most of the second half.

McClellan scored first on its second possession, one that started on the Jacksonville 26 after a shanked punt. It still took seven plays to score from there, and needed some luck. On third and 2 from the 6-yard line, tailback Ezekiel Baldwin fumbled as he was hit at the line of scrimmage, but a teammate covered at the 3 for a first down. Two plays later, big fullback Roashaun Young scored to give the Lions the lead with 1:53 left in the first quarter.

After the teams traded punts, Jacksonville started its fourth drive at midfield, and receiver Avery Wells became the go-to player. After a 5-yard gain by tailback Lamont Gause, Wells carried for 11 yards, and then caught a 34-yard strike down the left seam for a touchdown with 9:05 remaining in the first half.

McClellan’s next two drives ended in sacks, one by tackle Anthony Fields and one by linebacker Justin Abbott, but Jacksonville still didn’t gain a first down in either of its last two possessions.

McClellan got great field position again with a 43-yard punt return right up the middle of the hash marks that set the Lions up at the Jacksonville 27 with 1:23 left in the half. They got to the 10-yard line before an illegal procedure penalty turned a 27-yard field-goal attempt into a 32-yarder. Lion kicker Jesus Martinez missed it badly as time expired.

Both teams played much differently in the second half, and for good reason. McClellan had just 56 total yards of offense and 50 yards in penalties. Jacksonville 64 total yards and no penalties but made that difference up quickly in the second half.

Despite several big penalties in the last two quarters, Jacksonville’s offense was clicking and overcame them.

McClellan faced fourth and 11 on the opening possession of the third quarter and tried a fake punt. Young got about 10.5 yards on the direct snap, but came up just short of the first down. Jacksonville then went 57 yards in nine plays, despite two offensive penalties.

A horse collar tackle on Wells added 15 yards to the end of a 26-yard completion on third and 24 that kept the drive alive. After that, Gause carried for 9 yards, Treasean Lambert went for 6, and Gause got the last 12 up the middle. John Herrmann suffered a rare miss on a missile of an extra point that nearly took the left line judge’s cap off.

Jacksonville linebacker Nate Robbins intercepted a Dalvion Childs pass early in the next possession to give Jacksonville the ball at the McClellan 47. Quarterback Brandon Hickingbotham hit Laderrious Perry for a 38-yard gain on third and 10, but it was called back for holding and Jacksonville had to punt.

McClellan then went with an extreme overload, power formation and pushed the Red Devils backwards. The Lions stacked four linemen to the right of center, and put two blocking backs right behind them, feeding the ball to the 240-pound Young and shoving the Red Devils down the field.

The Lions went from their own 26 to the Jacksonville 14 before Jacksonville called timeout on second and 4. The Red Devils adjusted their alignment and Abbott got a tackle for a 3-yard loss on the next play. Young then gained just 1 yard to make it fourth and  6, and McClellan went back to the spread. The read handoff went to Baldwin, who gained 4 yards, giving the Red Devils possession on their own 12.  This time it was Jacksonville’s turn to grind it out. Gause carried nine times and Lambert twice on the 11-play drive that started with 10:21 left and ended with a 30-yard field goal by Herrmann with 2:03 remaining.

McClellan got nothing offensively on the last drive, but personal foul and defensive holding penalties kept the drive going longer than necessary.

The Red Devils finished with 187 total yards while McClellan had 156. Gause carried 20 times for 94 yards, including 12 carries for 81 yards in the second half. Wells caught two passes for 60 yards and a touchdown, and carried twice for 15 yards.

Jacksonville will travel to Batesville next week to face the 5A-East champions in the first round of the playoffs.