By Mike Self
Franklin Free Press
Russellville coach John Ritter hopes that no one associated with the Golden Tiger program puts too much stock in Deshler’s season-opening 42-3 loss at Muscle Shoals on Thursday.
He certainly isn’t.
“They’ve got a young football team,” Ritter said of the Tigers, who will welcome Russellville to Howard Chappell Stadium in Tuscumbia on Friday night for the 93rd installment of perhaps the most tradition-rich rivalry in northwest Alabama. “They’re kind of in the same position we were in last year at this same time, putting in completely new offensive and defensive philosophies. But I know two things: One, Randall Martin [now in his first season as Deshler’s head coach after spending six years as the head coach at Rogers High School and one as an assistant at Arab] does a phenomenal job. And two, those guys will be ready to play.”
Ritter, whose first game at Russellville was a thrilling 40-34 double-overtime win over the Tigers last August, has seen how things look from the other side, too. He was on staff at Deshler in 2014 when the Tigers bounced back from a season-opening 36-12 loss at RHS to win 13 straight games and advance all the way to the Class 4A state finals.
“Being on both sides of this type of game, I can tell you the records don’t matter,” Ritter said. “Predictions don’t matter. None of that matters. The Deshler-Russellville game is gonna be a war. Anybody who thinks it won’t be…I don’t think they’re from this area.
“When Russellville plays Deshler, it’s gonna be a hard-hitting, slobber-knocker type of game. That’s what we’re preparing for, and that’s what we’re expecting.”
While the Tigers were struggling to get anything going [they managed just 26 total yards and two first downs in the first half] last Thursday in their regular-season opener against the Class 6A No. 3 Trojans, Russellville was tuning up for Week 1 with a preseason game at East Limestone. The Golden Tigers fell behind 14-0 before turning things around with a solid second quarter from the varsity starters and then dominating the second-half jayvee action on their way to rallying for a 20-14 win.
“We made some typical first-game mistakes—which was a hundred percent expected—on both sides of the ball,” said Ritter, whose team gained just three total yards on the first quarter before putting up 110 yards in quarter number two. “We played hard though. We got down 14-0, but we kept fighting and gave ourselves a chance to tie the game up before halftime. [The Indians took a 14-7 lead into the locker room.] That was a positive end to the varsity half. We were very pleased with the effort on both sides of the ball.”
Senior quarterback Jacob Bishop overcame a shaky start to throw for 49 yards on 3-for-10 passing. All three of those completions went to junior receiver Cole Barnett, including a nice back-shoulder connection on a deep shot down the right sideline late in the first half for a 28-yard touchdown.
Russellville got its running game on track in the second quarter behind sophomore Boots McCulloch (who finished the first half with 37 yards on seven carries) and senior Austin Ashley (26 yards on four carries). Bishop, who ran wild in the spring game against Shelby County with 131 yards on just four attempts, rushed for 14 yards on five carries against East Limestone.
Junior tailback Caleb Matthews provided a spark in the second half, rushing for 45 yards and a touchdown in junior varsity action.
Ritter spoke highly of his team’s depth throughout the summer and fall camp, and the effects of that depth became more and more apparent as last Thursday’s game progressed.
“I think it showed up in the first half,” Ritter said. “Late in the second quarter, [the Indians] were sucking wind, and we were fresh on both sides of the ball. They tried to slow down the pace of play, but even with that I thought we might wear them down. It just goes back to us playing a bunch of kids. We played 16 on offense and 18 on defense, so that’s 34 kids who just played offense or defense. Plus we had another ten that just played special teams. We played over 40 kids in the first half. Then in the second half it was the same thing. We played 15 or 16 jayvee guys on offense and another 15 or 16 on defense, while they’re rolling out 14 guys that are playing all 22 spots.
“I thought it was a great representation of the depth we have on both sides of the ball. That’s a credit to our kids for being coachable. Like we’ve said before, we coach them all the same. That was a great representation of that. We looked really good in that jayvee half.”
Ritter and Martin (whose last two teams at Rogers, in 2016 and 2017, went 23-2) have been friends for years, going back to 2007 when Ritter was in school at the University of Alabama and Martin would head down to Tuscaloosa on football Saturdays in the fall.
“I was at Alabama, and Randall would come down for games,” Ritter said. “He was really good friends with one of my friends, and we became friends, too. Coaching in this area, we’ve always stayed in touch. Randall is a guy I’ve talked to weekly for the last three or four years.”
Martin has moved the Tigers back to their traditional Wing-T system on offense, a drastic departure from the spread offense they had run the past two years under former head coach Bo Culver. [After leading Deshler to the Class 4A state title game last season, Culver left to become the head coach at Hartselle.] Defensively, Deshler is running a 3-4 scheme very similar to the one Russellville runs under coordinator Chris Balentine.
“They know what we do really well, and we know what they do really well,” Ritter said. “Chris has been kind of a mentor to Randall, and he’s had a big influence on Randall’s defensive philosophy the last few years.”
As far as the Golden Tiger defense is concerned, Ritter said that discipline and consistency will be critical against the Wing-T on Friday night in Tuscumbia.
“Defensively, we have to read our keys,” Ritter said. “Against the Wing-T, we have to do what we’re supposed to do at a high level every snap. There’s a lot of misdirection, a lot of smoke and mirrors, and if we get caught trying to find the football instead of doing what we’re supposed to do, they’ll slip by us and we won’t even know who has the ball, or they’ll throw the wide one on us.
“We have to consistently do our job and read our keys. Whether that’s reading the guard, reading the tight end, reading the wing-backs or whatever—we have to do it every snap.”
Offensively, the Golden Tigers are bound to look very different from a year ago, when they averaged 292.6 rushing yards per game and 8.2 yards per carry behind 2,000-yard rusher Zaye Boyd and fleet-footed quarterback Lucas McNutt. Both graduated in May, along with big-play receiver Devin Buckhalter, meaning that Russellville must replace three major home-run threats who combined to score 55 touchdowns—30 of which covered at least 30 yards.
“We got spoiled last year,” Ritter said on Sunday evening. “At any given point, we had three guys on the field who could score from anywhere, and our other guys were able to make plays because everybody was so honed in on Lucas and Zaye and Devin. This year, we’re gonna have to be more patient. The big plays are gonna come, because we have some talented kids on offense. But they’re inexperienced at this point.
“We’ll have to be satisfied with getting four yards and having a twelve-play drive instead of going for the home run every time, which I feel like we tried to do Thursday night. Early on, I thought we were pressing to make big plays, and that was a huge factor in us not being successful. Those last two drives [of the first half], we kind of forgot about making big plays and just started executing better. We went on a twelve-play drive and scored, and we got the ball from our own four-yard line to the 50 and punted—which I would consider a successful drive.”
The Golden Tigers averaged right around a dozen pass attempts per game last season, but that number may rise significantly in 2019.
“Obviously, as you could tell Thursday night, we’re gonna throw the ball more than we did,” Ritter said. “We threw the ball ten times in the first half. We have to throw it well, and we have to catch it. We have to execute in everything we do. We’ll talk a lot this week about staying on schedule on offense. We can’t be in second-and-15 and third-and-12. We’ve gotta be in second-and-seven and third-and-five for us to be successful on offense.
“It’s very similar to what we always talk about. It starts with controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Last year’s opening win over Deshler propelled the Golden Tigers to a 7-0 start and a 9-1 regular season, and Ritter is hopeful to see something similar happen this season.
“Win, lose or draw, you want to play good,” he said. “If you play good, it’s gonna give you every opportunity to win. Beating Deshler last year did give our guys a lot of confidence, which was something we needed early on coming off a 3-7 season and going through a coaching change and a philosophy change. That was kind of the whole theme of last year—changing the culture to what we wanted it to be, to my idea of what the culture should be. The Deshler game definitely helped jump-start that.
“We’re hoping the same thing will happen this year. Getting off to a good start against Deshler would give us confidence, just by being 1-0 and by beating a program that’s the number three winningest program in the state of Alabama.”