By Jason Avery
Although it won’t have the added spice of being a conference game as it has been in each of the last two years, there is much at stake when Smackover hosts Junction City tonight in a clash between Union County rivals.
Game time is set for 7 p.m.
The Bucks (1-0) enter having downed defending 2A state champion Foreman 45-24, and they will be aiming to halt an eight-game losing streak in the series that dates back to 2005.
Smackover also will be trying to go to 2-0 for the first time since 2013, when they started 8-0 en route to reaching the 3A state semifinals.
Junction City (1-0) knocked off 3A rival Harmony Grove 52-50 in an overtime thriller last week.
In their meeting last year, the Dragons overcame a 14-0 deficit to top the Bucks 36-14, and a win would give the Dragons triumphs over two squads expected to be in the hunt for the 5-3A crown going into their bye week.
And while bragging rights will certainly be up for grabs, the atmosphere for tonight’s game could have more of a postseason vibe than a typical non-conference game.
“I think it will be a fun game for them,” said Smackover coach Brian Brown. “There’s going to be a lot of people there. We want to get better and try to be in that big-game environment. When you can play in those big-game environments, you’re a better team.”
Junction City coach Steven Jones is expecting tonight’s game to be a hard-fought battle to the end.
“Junction City and Smackover have a long history of great battles,” Jones said. “I feel like Saturday night’s game will be another one of those down-to-the-wire games. Hopefully, our guys will be ready.”
Jones added that the Bucks and Dragons are mirror images of one another in several ways.
“They’re very athletic,” Jones said. “On both sides of the ball, schematically, they’re very similar to what we try to do, so we’ll see some familiarity in scheme. Hopefully, that will help us out and we’ll be ready to roll.”
One factor for tonight’s game is the fast turnaround the Bucks have.
Smackover started their season on Monday with their aforementioned win over Foreman in the Hooten’s Kickoff Classic, while Junction City’s win came back on Friday.
“We started playing so late the other night that it was tough on our kids,” Brown said. “Tuesday was a wash. I laid my head on the pillow at 2:45 and I had to be at work at 7. The kids got home a little earlier, but that’s tough in coming back. I like to be prepared for the game, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
“With the number of coaches that we have and being a smaller school, you want to be fresh for the opponent, and I don’t wish that on anybody, but then again, those are the cards that you’re dealt, so those are the ones you play with. I think we’ll be ready. I think it’s going to take us until tomorrow (Thursday) or the next day (Friday) to be completely ready for the game.”
Although this will be Brown’s first taste of the rivalry between the Bucks and Dragons, he is well-versed in these type of games thanks to his experience from coaching in Texas.
“As a coach, it’s one game, to the kids, it’s usually not, and that can hurt,” Brown said. “You don’t want to do extra-curricular stuff to cause an issue. I’ve dealt with rivalries before, and I know what this one means to everybody. You want to take it as you do every game because that’s what we try to do, but I know how that is and sometimes people put more into it than there is, and a lot of times, that hurts you. You get overly confident or overly fired up or whatever you want to call it for the game, so we hope not to do that.”
On Monday night, the Bucks faced one of the top quarterbacks in the state in Foreman’s Kyren Batey.
Now, they must find a way to slow down Junction City’s balanced attack.
“Offensively, they’re so much different,” Brown said when asked to compare the Dragons and Gators. “Batey is a great player for Foreman, but that’s not how Junction City plays. They’ve probably got four or five weapons over there. Foreman has a couple of weapons, but I think Junction City has a few more on offense. The quarterback throws the ball well, and they’ve got a couple of guys that can come in and run the ball. They throw and catch the ball well, so I think they’ve got more weapons on offense.”
Junction City seemed to be well on their way to a win after building a 32-14 lead at intermission, but the Hornets came back to force overtime.
“I think we had some mental breakdowns on both sides of the ball,” Jones said. “Just not really understanding what to do in certain coverages, but playing that early, you expect that and you learn from that.”
Junction City’s offense racked up 486 yards of total offense with 304 of those yards coming on the ground.
Junior Jakiron Cook racked up 192 yards on 30 carries while scoring twice, and Jones was very pleased with his performance.
“Jakiron really stepped up,” Jones said. “He got 30 carries and did an awesome job. He’s been a very physical back and getting tough yards.”
Senior Dhante Gibson also topped the century mark, finishing with 114 yards and a score on 19 carries before leaving the game with an injury, and Jones said the senior will not play tonight.
“He’s out. Dhante Gibson won’t play Saturday,” Jones said. “We’ll have to take it week by week with that. He’s out this week, but we have a bye week, and hopefully he can get healthy.”
Sophomore Gabe Richard made his varsity debut last week, going 8-of-19 passing for 182 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Richard tied the game in overtime with a 1-yard run before Cook won the game moments later on a successful two-point conversion, and Jones thought the sophomore played well in the second half.
“He settled in in the second half and did a lot better,” Jones said. “He threw three interceptions in the first half, but as far as running the offense, I thought that he did a good job, and the more that he plays, the more he gets reps, the better he’ll be.”
Richard’s two touchdown passes were 53 and 58 yards to Brady Hutcheson and Kevontae Haynes respectively, and Jones said his receivers will play a pivotal role in tonight’s game.
“They had a couple of big gains on screens and things like that,” Jones said. “We’ve got to do a good job this week of getting the ball out in space and continue to have those guys come on. Just like Gabe, the more reps they get out there at receiver, the better they’ll be.”
Brown also had plenty of praise for the Dragons’ offense.
“They’re well-coached,” Brown said. “Cook is a good running back. He ran the ball really well, and I thought he was very tough. The quarterback threw the ball well. I think the tight end is a good player, and they’ve got a huge offensive line. Their wide receivers are good. Overall, they’re going to be a force in 2A, and they would be tough in 3A also. It’s going to be tough. A really good, well-coached team.”
The Bucks will also have to contend with the frenetic pace the Dragons’ offense plays at.
“The thing that gets you with the speed of the offense is usually when you get tired,” Brown said. “You’re not lining up as fast, you’re not reacting as fast, and those things hurt you. It’s hard to simulate that in practice because you’re not playing as long in practice. You’re not out there as long on defense. You’re not out there for four quarters. It’s hard to show that in practice, but we’re going to work on it, and hopefully it won’t hurt us.”
Like the Dragons, the Bucks also have a plethora of weapons on offense, and they also had two players top the century mark in rushing yards.
Senior Greg Turner had a terrific debut, scoring five touchdowns while rushing for 201 yards on 15 carries for the Bucks, who had 301 of their 394 yards of total offense against Foreman on the ground.
Along with Turner, Dexter Crockett had 103 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown run, on nine carries.
Senior quarterback Roshard Boone also threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jaqueze Modica in the win, and Jones said his defense has a tough task ahead of them.
“They’ve got guys outside that can go vertical anytime, and they’ve got a couple of backs that have outstanding speed, so we’ll have to string everything out and keep everything right there at the line of scrimmage,” Jones said.
The Dragons will also have to find a way to slow down the Bucks with Gibson on the sidelines.
“The guys in his spot didn’t get as many reps last week during practice,” Jones said. “Now that we know we’ll be without him, we’ve been able to fill that role, and we’ll look for a couple of guys to step up.”
Smackover’s defense also made its presence felt by recovering four fumbles in the win, while Modica intercepted a pass that later led to a touchdown.
“They’re very physical up front,” Jones said of the Bucks’ defense. “They had good pad level throughout the game against Foreman that I saw. They seem to be in very good shape for early in the season. It’s will be a tall task.”
Brown was pleased with his team’s effort against the Gators.
“The number one thing is when you look at the tape after the game is over is to see how hard your guys are playing, and our guys played hard,” Brown said. “That’s the one thing I was proud of. You’re going to get long passes, long runs, big tackles and fumble recoveries in every game, but you want to look at everybody and see what kind of speed you’re playing at. Are we playing hard? Are the kids focused on what we’re trying to do? All of those different things, and I thought we did that.”
If the Dragons are to win their ninth straight over the Bucks, Jones said his defense can’t allow big plays.
“We’ve got to stop big plays from happening,” Jones said. “We have to force Smackover into putting drives together, and not let them break one.”
For the Bucks, Brown said being able to run the ball will be vital.
“We’re going to have to run the ball, and our quarterback going to have to make good decisions throwing the ball,” Brown said. “I think we had two bad decisions the other night that were really hurtful. This is a cliché, but we have to tackle. We have to tackle their back and receivers. We have to play within ourselves, and not let the crowd and the big game dictate what we’re doing.”