Franklin Free Press
By: Mike Self
RUSSELLVILLE – As far as Russellville senior linebacker Jamal Hubbard is concerned, defense is a numbers game. And there’s one number he focuses on more than any other when evaluating his team’s performance on a given play.
“As long as we’ve got all 22 cleats getting to the ball,” Hubbard said, “we’re fine.”
The Golden Tigers have been far better than fine on the defensive side of the ball over the last six quarters. After holding rival Deshler to just 33 total yards in a scoreless second half in the season opener on August 30, Hubbard and company were at it again last Friday in the Class 5A, Region 7 opener against Corner, shutting out the Yellow Jackets in the first half and holding them to 124 total yards on the night in a resounding 41-7 win.
A year ago, when the defense gave up a few too many points (30-plus on five occasions and 26.3 per game on the season), Russellville had the luxury of relying on an explosive, big-play offense to simply score more. And score more the Golden Tigers did, averaging 40.2 points per game on their way to a 9-2 record in their first year under head coach John Ritter.
Now, a defense that is more experienced, more physical and more comfortable in coordinator Chris Balentine’s attacking 3-4 scheme has gone from liability to lynchpin, from weak link to solid rock.
“I’m very, very proud of that bunch,” Ritter said after last Friday’s win, in which Russellville’s D snuffed out a pair of early scoring threats by Corner on an interception in the end zone by junior safety J.D. Bishop and a blocked field goal by junior corner Ashaad Williams. “That’s what I told them last week [after the Deshler game]. We won a game on defense for the first time since we’ve been here. That was very encouraging, and tonight was kind of the same thing. We got to pin our ears back and do a lot of our zone-blitz stuff that we’ve been practicing since the spring, and it looked really good.”
During a four-quarter stretch (plus one overtime possession by Deshler) spanning the second half of the opener and the first half of the Corner game, Russellville’s defense allowed a total of just 100 yards and zero points. After driving 60 yards for a touchdown to open last Friday’s third quarter, the Yellow Jackets managed just two yards of offense on nine plays for the remainder of the game.
Heading into this Friday’s region game at Hayden, a 21-point second quarter by Deshler (which was aided by a pair of Russellville turnovers) in Week 1 remains the only blemish on an otherwise lights-out defensive effort by the Golden Tigers (2-0, 1-0).
“We’ve been reading our keys a lot, you know,” said Hubbard, who made a team-high 119 tackles from his outside ‘backer spot as a junior in 2018 and is one of eight returning players on defense with starting experience. “Instead of just going crazy, we’ve been reading our people and getting to the ball. We try to do that in practice. We work a lot on pursuit. We get to the ball. Everybody gets to the ball. We’re not trying to have anybody walking. We try to get everybody to the ball.”
That aggressive pursuit helped stifle a Corner offense coming off a 45-point outburst against Oak Grove the previous week in which sophomore quarterback Colin Daniel had thrown for 268 yards and four touchdowns. Russellville held Daniel to 39 yards on 7-for-17 passing and also limited the Yellow Jackets (2-1, 0-1) to just 85 rushing yards on 31 carries.
Meanwhile, Russellville’s offense demonstrated some of that familiar quick-strike ability, gashing Corner for three gains of 60-plus yards (two through the air, one on the ground) and totaling 472 yards on 47 snaps (an average of right at 10.0 yards per play).
“I think, on both sides, we were a lot faster, more aggressive,” Hubbard said of his team’s improvement from Week 1 to Week 2. “We were a lot more aggressive. The offense was pushing it down the field pretty good, and on defense we were just trying to hold them to zero points.”
The Golden Tigers did exactly that until the opening drive of the second half, when Corner moved 60 yards in 12 plays and scored on a one-yard run by Daniel to spoil the shutout and cut Russellville’s lead to 21-7.
“You can’t really be disappointed,” Hubbard said. “Things happen, and you’re not gonna be perfect on defense. We’ve just gotta work off that play and all the other mistakes we made. We put in a lot of work this past summer, and we’re still working on a few things here and there. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
The notion that Russellville’s defense is only scratching the surface of its potential is a frightening one—particularly if a retooled offense continues to progress the way it did last Friday night. Senior quarterback Jacob Bishop, a Muscle Shoals transfer, had his best game yet as a Golden Tiger, throwing for 194 yards and two touchdowns (both to junior receiver Rowe Gallagher) on 7-for-11 passing while also rushing for 28 yards and a score on three carries.
After misfiring on his first three pass attempts of the night, Bishop connected on his next four throws—including a deep post to Gallagher for a 68-yard scoring strike early in the second quarter and a 64-yard hook-up with sophomore H-back Nathan Brockway on a wheel route for a gain of 64 on Russellville’s very next offensive play.
“That was probably the best game he’s played,” Ritter said of Bishop, who is now 17-for-31 on the season for 335 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. “We didn’t do a ton of read stuff, so he didn’t miss that many reads. He made the right decisions in the passing game. After we hit the post to Rowe, I was really afraid he might try to force it in there on the next one. We called it to the other side on the next drive, and I was afraid he might try to go for it all. But he went through his progressions and hit the wheel, and Brockway turns a 20-yard ball into a 65-yard gain.
“I thought Jacob did a phenomenal job of reading coverages and getting the ball where it was supposed to be.”
The long gainer to Brockway set up a 16-yard touchdown scamper by sophomore tailback Airreon “Boots” McCulloch that stretched Russellville’s lead to 21-0 with 5:16 left in the first half. Earlier, on the Golden Tigers’ second possession of the night, the fleet-footed McCulloch had bolted down the right sideline for an 81-yard touchdown to start the scoring and make it 7-0 with 7:20 left in the first quarter.
McCulloch, who had rushed for 55 yards and two touchdowns on 10 first-half carries against Deshler before sitting out the entire second half with what Ritter described as a “full-body cramp,” had a career night against Corner, rushing 14 times for 147 yards and two scores.
“He took a lot better care of his body this week,” Ritter said of McCulloch, who leads the team with 202 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 24 attempts (an average of 8.4 yards per carry) thus far. “He’s a young pup. He’s just a tenth-grader. Sometimes, it’s trial-by-fire. I think, by getting burnt Week 1 [against Deshler] and not being able to finish the game, that showed him what he has to do to take care of his body.”
McCulloch’s early 81-yard sprint to the end zone set the tone for a night of big plays by the Golden Tigers. In addition to his two 60-plus-yard completions in the first half, Bishop also dropped in a perfectly thrown ball to junior receiver Cole Barnett for a 32-yard gain down to the Corner 10-yard line. Three plays later, Bishop hit Gallagher for a seven-yard touchdown to answer the Yellow Jackets’ only scoring drive of the night and restore the lead to three touchdowns at 28-7 with 2:39 left in the third.
“Northside nickeled and dimed them [in a 20-12 loss to Corner in Week Zero], and Oak Grove didn’t score at all,” Ritter said. “This was the first offense Corner had seen that was as explosive as we have the opportunity to be. I thought we did a good job of keeping them off-balance. We didn’t throw a lot on first down last week [against Deshler], and that was a big tendency we wanted to bust. I think we opened three of our seven drives with a pass, and two of them were big gainers.
“We did some stuff formation-wise to out-leverage them. On the long touchdown run [by McCulloch], we got in our bunched trips package and bounced over and ended up in an overload set. They didn’t adjust, and we out-ran them to the end zone.”
Russellville finished off the scoring last Friday with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, one on an eight-yard run by Bishop and the other on a three-yard run by junior tailback Caleb Matthews. The Golden Tigers will head south this week and take on Hayden in another Class 5A, Region 7 matchup. The Wildcats (1-2, 0-1) lost their region opener 27-14 at Lawrence County last Friday night.
Hubbard said starting off region play with a win over a playoff contender like Corner was big for Russellville.
“It gives us momentum,” he said last Friday night. “Now we just have to work on our mistakes from this game and get ready to play next week.”