Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SPORTS>>Badgers must slow down PA

Leader sports editor

In the next few weeks, NFL Films will air a segment about Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley, specifically his unorthodox philosophy that going for it on fourth down is almost always preferable to punting, even deep inside your own territory.

Well, a quick glance at the Bruins’ astonishing offensive numbers this year will have you asking, has Pulaski Academy even faced a fourth down this season?

The Beebe Badgers will be the next team that tries to force some four-and-outs against the prolific Bruins, when they travel to Little Rock this Friday night for a 5A quarterfinal battle.

“It’s one of the best offenses I’ve seen in my 18 years of coaching,” Beebe head coach John Shannon said of Pulaski Academy, which scored 63 points in a game for the third time this season. “They do it well. Their quarterback puts it on the money, they’ve got outstanding receivers and their running back does a great job running the ball. They are very deserving of the recognition they’ve got.”

Pulaski Academy has not punted once this season, though even Kelley admits there might have been a few times when it should have. Given the numbers, it’s hard to imagine when that might have been.

The Bruins are putting up 50 points a game. Quarterback Spencer Keith is 311 of 494 for 4,248 yards and an almost inconceivable 59 touchdowns through 11 games. They have a running back in D.J. Daniel who has rushed for another 1,400 yards. Receiver Neal Barlow, who has committed to the University of Arkansas, has hauled in 73 passes for 1,199 yards and 18 touchdowns, good for a distant second on the team.

The Bruins’ leading receiver is Carson McKnight, who has caught 105 passes for 1,593 yards and 16 TDs. Daniel has another 68 catches for 900 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“As far as yards per game, this is the best offense we’ve ever had here,” Kelley said. “Part of it is it’s the best offensive line I’ve had here. We have three starters up front who started as sophomores.”

Pulaski Academy opened the season with a 46-29 loss to West Helena but has ripped off 10 straight wins since, including a 63-39 victory over Alma in the first round last week.

Shannon figures that, against such a proficient machine, his Badgers may have to gamble a little bit more than usual.

“They’re not like West Helena as far as speed, but they have decent speed,” said Shannon, whose Badgers are red hot themselves after easily dispatching Blytheville, 35-22, in their first round game to run their winning streak to five. “But they put you in binds with the routes they run. You debate whether you drop a bunch and try to cover them, or pressure their quarterback.

“And you think they just run those quick routes, but they go vertical, too, and go for the throat.”

The key, of course, will be to try to keep the ball out of the Bruins’ hands as long as possible. If anyone is capable of doing that, it is the Badgers’ Dead-T, grind-it-out offense, which rests on the other end of the offensive spectrum from the Bruins. Beebe had three uncharacteristically short scoring drives last week, two of which were the result of 60-some yard touchdown runs by fullback Sammy Williams.

“Beebe is one of those teams that probably just as soon wouldn’t rip off a 50-yard run,” Kelley said. “They’re happy making three, four, five yards a carry. That’s tough to defend. They’re going to try to limit our possessions and that could be tough.

On the other hand, if we get a couple of stops early and get a lead, it could be tough for them to come back on us.”

Kelley said his club has not faced a Dead-T offense all season. The Bruins are allowing nearly 27 points a game, a stat that is misleading for several reasons.

“The defense has actually played pretty well,” Kelley said. “But we’ve had a lot of big leads where we put in our younger guys on defense. And the other thing is, we score quick, onside kick a lot and go for it on fourth down. We give our opponents a short field a lot of the time.”

What concerns Kelley about the Badgers is just how efficient they are at running their offense.

“They are very good at what they do,” he said. “They’ve got a mission, to make three yards a play. As I understand it, four times three is 12 and that’s a first down. Their linemen are disciplined and their backs take very good angles.”

But the Badgers are conceding nothing. They have been playing their best football both offensively and defensively the past five weeks and their confidence is sky high, no matter who the opponent.

“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing the past five weeks,” Shannon said. “They’re going to get their points. We just need to get a few stops, and then keep their offense on the sidelines.

“But the kids are excited. We feel like we deserve to be one of the top eight teams in the state. They’ve earned it. We feel like we can compete with anybody in the state. We need to make sure we’re in the ball game in the fourth quarter. Then if you get a few breaks, you have a chance to win.”