Tuesday, September 29, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Badgers must win at JHS

Leader sports editor

It’s just the second week of conference play in the 5A-Central, but this Friday’s matchup between Jacksonville and Beebe carries significant playoff implications for both teams. It’s homecoming week for Jacksonville, so the Red Devils are dealing with further distractions, but the main issue the home team faces is getting its struggling offense to be more effective against one of the better defenses in the conference.

Most teams struggle with how to stop Beebe’s downhill Dead-T offense. Jacksonville did a fantastic job of that last season, and the Badgers have suffered several key injuries already this season that have made that offense somewhat less explosive than preseason expectations. Turnovers have also hurt the Badgers, especially the five lost fumbles in last week’s 14-13 loss to McClellan, but injuries have played a role in those as well.

At least two players have been lost for the season. Seven have missed at least one game and as many as three Badgers will be out for this week’s game. Two of them are quarterbacks.

Starter Justin Burlison was held out of last week’s game as doctors tried to figure out what caused a dizzy spell during practice. All those results finally came in Tuesday, and Burlison is cleared to play. His backup, sophomore Mason Walker, suffered a knee injury while playing defense against McClellan.

The third-string quarterback, Zack Woodall, who is also a defensive back, had to leave the game after taking a blind cheap shot from a McClellan defensive end away from the action. That left starting inside linebacker Bo Smith to finish the game under center, and he could start this week against Jacksonville as well.

Beebe had already lost 1,300-yard rusher Jo’Vaughn Wyrick for the season when his leg was broken at Lonoke, and two starting defensive linemen have missed games as well. There are also a few reserve players who will sit this week at Jan Crow Stadium.

“I know I said this last year after the way that season started, but I’ve never had a season like this one,” said Beebe coach John Shannon. “This one’s actually worse than last year with the injuries.”

Both teams enter the game 1-3, but Beebe has not won since the season opener while Jacksonville picked up its first win last week when it beat J.A. Fair 44-6. Beating Fair is not necessarily a sign of a good team, but Shannon knows playing with confidence is a key part of any team’s success, and the Red Devils picked up some confidence with last week’s dominant victory.

Jacksonville was 0-3 last year before beating Fair, then stretched Beebe to the fourth quarter before losing by seven on a late Badger touchdown.

“You watch them on film and what scares me about them is they have athletes on the field,” Shannon said. “They haven’t had a lot of success, but when guys like that start playing with some confidence, it can change a lot of things. That offensive line is huge. It’s every bit as big as McClellan’s and maybe bigger. Jacksonville’s a dangerous team, and we have to have this one. Our backs are against the wall so we have to give it everything we’ve got.”

Jacksonville still has one starter out, sophomore running back Danny Smith, but senior Malcolm Crudup ran the ball well last week. He had been starting at linebacker, but moved to offense full time last week.

The Red Devils had struggled badly on defense the first three weeks, primarily with missing tackles. It looked better at Fair, but the War Eagles’ Spread offense does not compare at all to how physical the Badgers’ power run game will be.

“We’re going to have to tackle to the ground,” said Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham. “Trip Smith is a strong fullback. He makes a living running through tackles, and it’s a whole different mindset getting ready for those linemen to come firing off the line at you. It’s a challenge changing your whole approach on defense, but that’s what Beebe does to you.”

There have been signs of the confidence Shannon worries about at Jacksonville practices this week.

“Everybody always feels a lot better after a win,” Hickingbotham said on Monday. “There’s a little more energy out here today. We want to keep it going. I think we started out last week still a little unsure of ourselves. We weren’t moving it very well early. But the defense stepped up and made some plays and put us in some good situations.

“We still got down to the goal line a couple times and didn’t get it in. But for the most part I thought we got better. We have to keep doing that all week because Beebe is going to be a whole different ball game,” the coach said.