Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

SPORTS >>Devils playing for top seed

By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor

It’s been a great while since Jacksonville has played in a game of such importance in the final week of the season. It’s been over a decade since the Red Devils have won a conference championship. They’ve already accomplished at least a share of that, but nothing would be sweeter than an outright conference title and a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs that begin next week. There’s also a home game in the playoffs on the line. If Jacksonville loses, it can’t finish in the top two, which means going on the road for the first round of the playoffs.

In order to get all of that, they have to beat the Marion Patriots this Thursday night at Marion. The Patriots are fresh off a 10-7 win over Jonesboro in which the offense didn’t score a touchdown. Razorback commit Jerry Franklin intercepted a pass late in the game and returned it for a touchdown to lift the Patriots to victory.

Despite the lack of scoring, Marion coach Mark Uhiren is pleased with the way his team played in its most recent game. “I was real pleased with my kids the other night,” Uhiren said. “It was a slop hole up there. It had rained every day of the week and it rained during the game. That was the biggest team I’ve ever seen. The line was gigantic, the backs were big and punishing. Then you had the quarterback running around back there like a chicken that we just couldn’t catch. I tell you I was proud of the way they handled all of that.”

Jacksonville coach Mark Whatley sees the same thing Uhiren sees in the Patriots, a resilient team with a lot of speed and athleticism. “That’s a very good football team,” Whatley said. “They’re very physical and they’ve got everybody healthy. We’ve been catching people like that the last three or four weeks, but all we can do is go play. The Franklin kid is a difference maker and you have to be aware of where he is. They want to keep the football a lot like West Memphis, but they’re a little more complex than them. They’ve got a few more options that we’re going to have to be ready for.”

Marion is in its first year in a higher classfication, and the lack of depth is apparent. Only a few players have the luxury of playing on just one side of the football, but Jacksonville is in a similar situation. The Red Devils have a little more depth and can rest people for a few more snaps than Marion, but both teams have played a lot of players both ways all season.
Uhiren believes that is becoming less of a factor as the season moves on.

“We’re playing one-platoon football and a lot of teams have tried to take advantage of that. But I believe my kids were playing stronger in the fourth quarter the other night than they played all game long. “I wouldn’t say that if it’s not true. It’s getting cooler and that heat isn’t beating down on us like it was earlier in the year. I’m proud of how hard the kids are playing.”

The Patriots are finally getting healthy. They got everyone back two weeks ago against Sylvan Hills, and were at full strength against Jonesboro. Senior running back Darcel Johnston, who missed most of the season before returning as a full-time player against Sylvan Hills, hasn’t been as productive as last season, when he ran for over 2,000 yards and scored 30 touchdowns.

That has forced the Patriots to be more versatile, and Uhiren isn’t totally displeased with that. “We’ve finally got everybody back but we’re not full speed,” Uhiren said. “If Darcel was 100 percent and going full-tilt I’d say we have a go-to guy. As it is we’ve had to spread it around and I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.”

Jacksonville has been well balanced between the run and pass in recent games. Last week the running game did most of the damage in the win over West Memphis, but Uhiren believes the key to Jacksonville’s offense is quarterback Daniel Hubbard.
“That quarterback runs things smoothly, he doesn’t panic,” Uhiren said. “He’s not a runner so to speak, but he’s elusive. He knows how to shift around and find a better way to throw the football.”

The head Patriot isn’t disregarding the running game however. “That would be silly for me to go all out after the quarterback, so I’m not neglecting the running game at all. I don’t know, I just think that quarterback is the key to things. There’s something to say about a guy that can calmly and collectively get a team together and make things go.”