SPORTS >>Jacksonville clinches first conference title since ’93
By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor
It had not been since 1993, now it’s only been one day since Jack-sonville won at least a share of a conference championship in football. The Red Devils overcame a 10-point deficit and a lot of bad luck to knock off West Memphis 14-10 to improve to 5-1 in the 6A-Central and take over sole possession of first place with one week left in the regular season.
Jacksonville coach Mark Whatley was happy that a share of the league title was wrapped up, but quickly averted his attention to next week.
“I’m proud of those guys. I’m happy for them. Now we’re going to try to do the very best we can do next Friday,” Whatley said. “Then we’ll get up Saturday morning and find out where we’re going to go or who’s coming to see us.”
The sequence of events that led to the game winner began with Jacksonville trailing 10-6. West Memphis took possession after stopping the Red Devils on fourth and goal from the 11-yard line.
The Blue Devils took over at that spot with 4:16 remaining. Jacksonville had jus one time out left, so one first down would have likely given West Memphis the win. That became an even easier task when Jacksonville jumped offsides be-fore the Blue Devils snapped the ball, making it first and five. Three West Memphis carries picked up just four yards, leaving West Memphis with fourth and one at the 20. The Blue Devils called timeout after failing to get the Red Devils to jump. They decided to go for it, but the Jacksonville defense didn’t give an inch. In fact, it backed up Blue Devil fullback Dominique Hamalin about a foot, and the Red Devils took over with two minutes left in the game.
Senior tailback Justin Akins went two yards on first down, and Lee Robinson caught a 13-yard pass on second to set up first and goal at the 5.
Hubbard then fired a rocket to Akins on a slant pattern in the end zone with 56 seconds remaining. After a five-yard delay penalty, Hubbard hit Marcus King on a fade to the corner of the end zone for the two-point conversion to set the final margin.
The Jacksonville defense was outstanding throughout the game, but never as much as on that fourth down play.
Red Devil defensive lineman Cord Walker put the play in perspective.
“That play goes all the way back to practice,” Walker said. “That’s what we were there for in August, working in the 112-degree heat, for that moment right there. We were waiting on that one.”
Whatley reiterated what Walker had to say.
“This goes back to August when this team first started learning how to believe in each other,” Whatley said. “They continue to believe in each other, continue to beat the odds and continue to overcome adversity. This is an awful special bunch and I’m proud to work for ‘em.”
The Red Devils overcame eight dropped passes Friday night, including six in the first half. They overcame a 10-0 fourth-quarter deficit and an offense that was stuck in neutral the entire first half.
Jacksonville could get nothing going offensively in the first half. The first three drives were all three and out and totaled seven yards. The Red Devils got it moving on the fourth drive, but an interception on the West Memphis 28 was returned 36 yards to the Jacksonville 34 by Blue Devil safety Kevin Moore.
The Jacksonville defense didn’t budge, and West Memphis kicker Paulo Henriques nailed a 43-yard field goal with 16 seconds left in the half to put his team up 10-0.
Jacksonville got the ball to start the second half, and moved it exclusively on the ground until the drive stalled at the West Memphis 47.
Jacksonville punted and West Memphis put together its second long, time-consuming drive of the game. But after 12 plays and 49 yards, the Blue Devils were faced with fourth and three at the Jacksonville 18. A pass attempt was tipped up into the air, and junior Cameron Hood caught it on the run and returned back to the 20. From there, the Red Devils started their first scoring drive of the game. The drive took 10 plays to go 80 yards, and featured six runs and four passes. The key play took place on fourth and inches at the West Memphis 20-yard line. Jacksonville lined up in the spread, and Hubbard hit Norvel Gabriel over the middle for a 17-yard pick- up to set up first and goal at the 3-yard line on the last play of the third quarter.
On the first play of the fourth, Akins bulled his way in for the score. The extra point attempt was blocked, leaving the score 10-6 with 11:56 left in the game.
Akins finished with 20 carries for 134 yards. He had only 26 yards until the last play of the first half. The second half was a totally different story, and Akins gave credit where it was due.
“The line just stepped up and opened big holes for me,” Akins said. “We weren’t able to do much in the first half because we were dropping balls. We were looking at the guys coming to hit us. We just kept our eye on the ball in the second half, made the catches. The line opened up holes. We just all came together in the second half.”
Jacksonville flinched first when receivers dropped two passes while wide open on the Red Devils first drive. The drive came right after the Jacksonville defense had forced a West Memphis three and out to start the game. West Memphis got a good run back that was coming back from the start, but the Blue Devils still made Jacksonville pay for the drops.
West Memphis went on an 18-play, 84-yard drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown run by Josh Wilson on the first play of the second quarter.
The drive took over nine minutes, and Jacksonville answered with another three and out drive that took less than two minutes.
The Red Devil defense forced another punt after giving up two first downs, but Jacksonville answered with its third three-play series and punted again.
The Red Devil defense forced a Blue Devil three and out, and Jacksonville finally got some offense going on the ground. Three Justin Akins runs went for 34 yards and two first downs before the dropsies struck again.
Two drops on first and second downs were followed by a tough catch over the middle by Blake Mattison. Mattison paid for the catch by taking a huge hit, but hung on for a 16-yard gain and another first down.
Two plays later, the sixth dropped pass of the first half resulted in Moore’s interception that led to Henriques’ long field goal.
The Red Devils finished with 253 total yards, 184 of which came in the second half. West Memphis had 218 total yards. Junior Josh Wilson led the quintet of running backs with 68 yards on 15 carries.
Jacksonville can clinch an outright league title by beating Marion at Marion next week. West Memphis finishes up at home against Forrest City. A Jacksonville loss could lead to a four-way tie for first place at season’s end. Look for details and breakdowns of the clear-as-mud 6A-East Conference race in Wednesday’s edition of The Leader.