Neal, Clarke County face key region game
Playoff road gets lot tougher for Friday's loser
By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
Three straight wins and a 4-1 record have the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles and their followers excited about what they have accomplished so far.
Their long-range goal is securing a berth in the Class 3A playoffs. A win at Clarke County against the Bulldogs Friday would certainly be a step in the right direction. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
The game is a pivotal one for both teams. Clarke County, which is 3-2 overall, already has two region losses to Straughn and T.R. Miller. A third region loss would push the Bulldogs on the brink of postseason elimination.
While W.S. Neal is 2-1 in Region 1 play, the Blue Eagles face a difficult region schedule down the stretch. After next week's Homecoming game against Calhoun, W.S. Neal has dates at Straughn (4-1) and at home against T.R. Miller (5-0).
"It's a huge game for both teams. From a record standpoint, they need it worse than we do because they already have the two region losses and we have one, " said W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers.
The season has been a bit of a roller coaster for the Bulldogs so far. Clarke County outscored Greene County and Calhoun by a combined 83-0 margin in its first two games, but lost the next two weeks to T.R. Miller 23-6 and Straughn 24-14. Last week Clarke County got back on track with a 49-14 victory over Jackson.
As the Blue Eagles make their push for postseason play, they will need more defensive efforts like the one they had in last week's 35-0 non-region win at Escambia County.
While Smothers had his team focus on Escambia County's two-quarterback system, this week the attention will shift to the Bulldogs' ground game led by Willie Horn (5-8, 170 lb. sr.). Horn has had some solid games this season after he was given the unenviable job of replacing the departed Montell Armstrong and his 4,000 career rushing yards. Brandon White (5-11, 165 lb. jr.) is also a threat out of the backfield.
"They've got a good running game. With good reason, they like to run behind (tackle) Brandon Stabler (6-5, 295 lb. sr.) He is one of the better offensive linemen around. Horn has done a nice job out of the backfield, but White really concerns me. He has great speed and they use him a lot on special teams. He is capable of making big plays," Smothers said.
The success of the Clarke County running game should set up a battle of strength against strength.
"We've been pretty good against the run all season. Despite that, I think they will stay with their strength on offense, which is the run. They usually don't like to throw the ball a whole lot," said Smothers.
While W.S. Neal had allowed just 64 rushing yards the last two weeks against Hayneville Central and Escambia County, Smothers said his defensive unit is playing well as a whole.
"Our defense has allowed only two touchdowns the last three weeks. We had some problems with our pass defense against Hayneville Central, but we've made some lineup changes," Smothers said. "We've had some players really step it up on defense. Last week Jake Bailey led us with 13 tackles and Roc Herbert had 10 tackles with two turnovers for touchdowns." Smothers said.
Although the Bulldogs tend to rely on the run, Smothers said Clarke County quarterback Cardarrious Dunagan (6-0, 175 lb. sr.) is a dangerous weapon.
"He'll take off and run on you if don't do a good job of containment. When they do throw, they usually throw the deep ball. That is a little unusual for the kind of formation they use," Smothers said.
Speaking of offense, two plays accounted for 127 of W.S. Neal's 222 yards against Escambia County.
"We didn't have the ball very much in that game. We only ran 34 plays. That's not enough. We'd like for it to be somewhere between 50 and 60. In the second half, our starting offensive unit ran only eight plays before we took them out. We need to get them some more work," Smothers said.