SPORTS>> Bulldogs big favorites
By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor
The Jacksonville football team hasn’t been the favorite in all of its games this year, but it’s never been quite as big an underdog as it is heading into its first-round playoff game against Springdale.
The Bulldogs are 10-0, ranked as highly as third in the entire nation by some national prep rankings, and in the top 10 of all of them. They have invoked the mercy-rule on every team they’ve played this year except Shreveport Evangel, and that was only because the game was played in Louisiana, where there is no such thing as a mercy rule.
Jenks, Oklahoma, is the No. 1 ranked team in its state, and Springdale beat them 42-3.
Every in-state team Springdale has played has been mercy-ruled no later than Springdale’s first possession of the third quarter, and most have been done by halftime.
Jacksonville enters the playoffs with a 5-5 record, with wins against every team below .500, and losses to every team above .500.
Still, the Red Devils head into Springdale with some confidence. They believe that they are the only reason they are not undefeated. Other teams didn’t beat them, they beat themselves.
They believe that if they can execute offensively, and avoid breakdowns on defense and special teams, they can hang with the mighty Bulldogs.
Jacksonville coach Mark Whatley says the team’s attitude has been outstanding so far this week.
“I love the attitude of this bunch,” Whatley said. “Like I said a couple of weeks ago, this team has played hard every game. We haven’t played well at times, but there’s never been a lack of effort. We’re going to have to execute plays, and put them together, but I think we can do that.”
According to the head coach, the list of things about Springdale that doesn’t concern him is a lot shorter than the list of things that do.
“They’re a complete football team,” Whatley said. “Everyone talks about that offense, but I don’t think their defense gets the credit it deserves. Then you look at last week, and they returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. You can’t take a single play off or you’ll pay for it.”
Springdale coach Gus Malzahn heads up what many are saying is the best high-school football team that Arkansas has ever seen.
Even with that reputation, and with wins over teams with nationwide recognition, Malzahn isn’t concerned in the least with his team entering overconfident and suffering a letdown.
“This is the playoffs,” Malzahn said.
“This is what this team has been waiting on. We’ve got just about everybody back that experienced last year, and coming up short of our goals. There will not be any letdowns.”
Springdale was beaten handily by Little Rock Central in the playoffs last year, but proving themselves this year isn’t the Bulldogs’ only motivation for staying focused.
Malzahn says Jacksonville has a few things that concern him.
“We came down and watched them play, and they have some big-play guys that we have to be aware of. We have respect for Jacksonville.
“They have that speed that might rival anyone we’ve played, but we feel like we have some speed of our own.”
Making good throws and catching those throws will be a big key for Jacksonville. There’s little that coaches can generally find in Springdale from watching film that they believe they will capitalize on, but Whatley finds something from watching his own team.
“Our offensive line has been about as solid a group as we’ve had as far as being consistent all year long,” Whatley said.
“They’ve given us plenty of time to throw all year, and we feel like they’ll do that this week. We just have to make smart throws, good throws, and catch ‘em. We can’t miss any opportunities against this team. When we have them, we’ve got to make the most of them.”