Leader Blues

Thursday, October 04, 2007

SPORTS >>Rivalry takes back seat Friday

By RAY BENTON & JASON KING
Leader sports staff

Jacksonville should go on the road more often. In their last four games, the Red Devils are 3-0 on the road and 0-1 at home. They’ve outscored their opponents 106-10 in those three wins, and were beaten 36-0 in the home game.

They’ll have to find a way to remedy those home woes this week when they host conference mate and nearby rival Sylvan Hills this Friday at Jan Crow Stadium.

The Bears enter the week with some momentum. They won their first game of the season, 27-7 last week at home against Mountain Home, and now have a rivalry game facing them on the road.

First-year Sylvan Hills coach and former Mills general Jim Withrow says that he is very familiar with PCSSD rivalries. He says that this year, the whole local rival scenario will have to take a back seat to the mentality of simply having to win in order to stay in the playoff hunt.

“Anytime you play another team in this county, it kind of takes on a little bit more meaning,” Withrow said. “I’ve been in Pulaski County for a few years now; I know how big these games can be. This is a huge game for us no matter how you want to look at it. If we can win this game, it can change our fortunes for the rest of the season.”

The rivalry is not what concerns Jacksonville coach Mark Whatley the most either. He’s worried about how well his team will prepare mentally for the upcoming game.

“It’s been a lot better the last two weeks and you can see the difference,” Whatley said. “Hopefully that will continue now that we’re back home. Hopefully we realize that we’ve done it with all the silliness, and we’ve done it without it, and the results have been a lot different.”

Some of the better focus culminated in some smart, heady play in last week’s impressive 47-7 win over Jonesboro.
Despite throwing for 238 yards and three touchdowns, one of quarterback Thomas Blade’s best plays, according to Whatley, gained nothing.

“I thought one of his biggest plays came when they blitzed and we got nothing,” Whatley said. “He rolled out towards the sidelines and threw the ball away. I’ve been waiting three years for a quarterback to do that for me. It gives us a chance to line up live to play another down instead throwing an interception or taking a sack for a 20-yard loss. So one of the biggest things Thomas is doing for us is taking care of the football.”

There were other things that made the offense click. Many of Jacksonville’s big plays last week came on short passes. There is a good reason for that.

“You know I really think the offensive line has been doing a pretty good job all year,” Whatley said. “What was different this week was that we got good blocking from our backs and receivers. That’s finishing, getting those blocks up the field a little bit. That’s what turns a 4-yard gain into a 24-yard gain.

The offensive weapons of the Red Devils have not gone unnoticed by Withrow, who believes that mistakes and points generated from those mistakes will ultimately separate the winner from the loser on Friday.

“It sounds like a dumb thing to say because everyone always says it, but I think turnovers will be the key,” Withrow said. “Whoever makes the least mistakes will win. We can’t give up the big play to them, because it’s pretty obvious that they are going to come out wide open throwing the ball downfield.”

Red Devil Cameron Hood, who started the season at quarterback, has morphed into an all-important utility player. Already one of the best linebackers in the league, Hood spent time at fullback last week, blocking well and carrying the ball effectively.

“He had some good runs for us in a time that we needed him,” Whatley said. “Cam is a luxury in that he can play anywhere on the football field you need him to. He’s also a luxury in that he understands that this is a team, and he’s willing to be a leader and play several different roles in order to make us a better team.”

Whatley has been very pleased with his defense in the past couple of week, yielding just seven points in eight quarters. He knows, though, that the Bears have a game-breaking type player that the Bombers and Hurricane didn’t have.

“Anytime they snap the ball to number 10 you’d better be on your toes,” Whatley said. “That pretty much means we’d better be on our toes at all times. I feel like our defense has been outstanding the past two weeks. There’s just no room to let up in this league. Hopefully we can keep that intensity and keep playing smart.”

Withrow, however, hopes that extensive work in practice this week will get the spread formation working in the air once again, and not primarily on the ground which was the case during last week’s win over Mountain Home.

“We threw the ball well against West Memphis,” Withrow said. “I think we just got a little too conservative in the second half last week. “We had a bad week there, but we worked hard in practice on Monday to try and clean some of those things up. Whatever we do, we just can’t make mistakes against Jacksonville. I don’t think there are any guarantees for either team going into this deal, so one mistake could cost you the game.”

Whatley is concerned with Sylvan Hills’s defense as well.

Defensively its going to be the fastest team we’ve seen,” Whatley said. “It’s a predator defense that gets after you, very aggressive. Overall they may be a little faster than us, so we’re going to have make sure we’re in the right spots.”