Bulldogs, Patriots square off in Game of the Week

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sweet Water. American Christian. The 2004 state 1A Champs. The 2004 1A Region 4 champs. The third- and second-ranked teams in the state, or, as Bulldogs coach Andro Williams perhaps more accurately puts it, “the number-one and number-one” teams in the state. This Friday night in Sweet Water.

Do regular-season high school football games get any bigger than this?

“This is what you work for,” says Sweet Water head coach Stacy Luker. “To be playing in a state championship, to be playing ACA in a game like this…We’ve had the opportunity for our team to be recognized for their achievements, and with that comes big games. It’s good for your program.”

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At stake for the Bulldogs is more than bragging rights about which of the two deserves to be the favorite heading into the 1A playoffs. For starters there’s payback for last year’s last-second 33-28 loss to the Patriots in Tuscaloosa. And more importantly, says Luker, there’s the right to claim the Region 4 crown.

With that goal in sight and their rivals standing in their way, the Bulldogs have been energized and focused in practice this week, Luker says.

“It puts a little more pep in their step,” he says. “They look at it not more of a two-vs.-three but more that this is our shot. We’ve got to go through this bunch if we’re going to be regional champs, and that’s one of the goals we set for ourselves. It’s big.”

Luker is quick to point out that with John Essex on the schedule a week later and lurking at 4-1 in the region, a win Friday won’t decide things by itself (“The kids understand we’ve still got work to do,” he says). But after ACA dealt the Bulldogs their only loss last season, it still presents an excellent chance for Sweet Water to see how far they’ve come.

“In 1A they’re the measuring stick,” Luker says of the Patriots, adding that he saw them as the 1A favorites in the pre-season. “They’re a measuring stick for us. We’re excited to have that kind of game coming up again.”

Whether the game produces the same outcome as last year will largely hinge on how well the Bulldogs handle ACA’s All-State quarterback and Player of the Year candidate Chris Smelley. Smelley has been as good as advertised thus far in the 2005 season, completing more than 55 percent of his passes for more than 1800 yards. The senior has thrown 31 touchdown passes with only a single interception.

“Somebody like Smelley you just have to hope to control him a little bit,” Luker says. “Our kids respect him. He’s so accurate and so athletic. Watching him on film you can tell he’s just a smart football player and an on-the-field leader, too.”

The best way to slow down a guy that had the Patriots “on their way to 60,” according to Luker, last year? Keep the ball out of his hands.

“He’s going to get his, so we’ve got to get ours,” Luker says. “The best way to control him is to get a little tempo going on offense and just play keep away. We have to control him with our offense because we may not be able to with our defense.”

The responsibility of moving the chains will once again fall to the Bulldogs’ overpowering rushing attack. Sweet Water’s four-headed RB platoon of Anthony Landrum, Dominic Holt, Travion Lockett, and Patrick Gamble has once again been dominating opposing offenses, to the tune of 53.6 points-per-game, tops in the state.

But despite the All-State talent in the backfield, Luker says the story of the Bulldogs’ offensive success starts up front where under the tutelage of line coach Mark Davis center Steven Etheridge, guards Paul Lynn and Blake Luker, and tackles Scottie Nelson and J.D. Barnhill have given the backs plenty of room to run.

“They’ve taken on his attitude,” Luker says, referring to Davis’s intensity. “They’ll battle you. They’re a good group of kids. They do a great job and our backs respect what they do.”

As good as the line and the backs behind them have been, it may still take some plays from the Bulldog passing game to pull out a victory. Senior quarterback Deon Williams and split ends Travis Young and Antonio Landrum mean that the Bulldogs can make those plays when called on.

“Deon has been effective,” Luker says, adding that he’ll need to be again Friday. “I’m sure they’ll try to stack the box on us and make us throw.”

When the Sweet Water defense does take the field, it would be easy to say that thanks to the Patriots’ love of putting the ball in the air, it will be the Bulldog secondary–Williams, Lynn, Gamble, and freshman Demaraquis Williams–that falls under the most pressure. But Luker says that’s not the case.

“It’ll take our defense as a whole,” he says. “A total team effort.”

That’s thanks in part to an offense that’s a lot more than just Smelley. Wide receivers Jeffrey Ogren and Brad Smelley have big-play potential while backs Rick Spybey and Jimmy Carr are quick hitters that have excellent hands out of the backfield.

“Every one of their skill players is a weapon,” Luker says. “To me [Spybey and Carr]

are the unsung guys on that offense. You start looking at all those receivers and then burn you out of the backfield. They make you defend the whole field.”

It will be a tremendous challenge for a defense that hasn’t yielded more than six points since the season opener against 4A Thomasville. However well they do, and whatever the outcome, the game seems destined to become one the locals in Sweet Water will talk about for years to come, and one the players will cherish playing in forever.

“It’s something,” Luker says, “they’ll never forget.”