It might be the first region game of the season, but Friday night's clash between East Limestone and Madison Academy might just turn out to decide the Class 5A, Region 8 champion.
“This is a big game for both teams in the region,” East Limestone coach Jeff Pugh said. “If you win, it gives you a leg up in the region. If people look at it from the outside, they'll say this is two of the better teams in the region, so it's a huge opportunity.”
Pugh hopes his team will perform better against the Mustangs than it did last year when the Indians suffered a 49-21 loss in Madison. The game was tied 21-21 at halftime, but Madison Academy outscored East 28-0 in the second half to pull away.
“We came out in the second half and got the ball, drove to their side of the field and fumbled,” Pugh said. “They got the ball and scored on their first play. Then they kick off to us, we fumble the kickoff, and they go down and score again. So we were down 35-21 in the first five minutes of the second half. We shot ourselves in the foot in the second half, and you cannot do that against a good football team.”
Madison Academy is a much different team than last year, with a new head coach, new offensive coordinator and new quarterback. Last year's quarterback, Class 5A second-team All-State selection Luke Nail, transferred to Danville for his senior season and head coach Grant Reynolds resigned to take a coaching job in Tennessee.
Madison Academy hired former Hartselle head coach Bob Godsey as head coach, and the Mustangs have gone 1-1 in their first two games, losing to Braircrest Christian (Tennessee) 41-7 in their opener before defeating Lawrence County 17-7 last week.
“They've still got good players, and when you bring coach Godsey in, you've got good coaching,” Pugh said. “He knows what he's doing. I don't think there will be any drop off. They might even be better. In our region, it's going to be a war every week. You've got to play well to win. If you play bad, you're going to get exposed, and probably going to get beat.”
East Limestone opened its season last Thursday with a 26-15 win over West Limestone. Pugh thought the Indians played well in spurts, but made mistakes that must be cleaned up as they enter region play.
“We didn't block very well up front,” Pugh said. “Our backs ran the ball well, but we missed too many assignments. West Limestone did a good job defensively against some of the stuff we love to do. We just need to improve things like staying with assignments, staying with blocks, getting in the right lanes and carrying out fakes.”
A disturbing trend so far this season for East Limestone has been the inability to close out games. Two weeks ago, in East's jamboree game against Russellville, the Indians gave up a long touchdown pass right before the varsity half of the game ended, and last week, East saw a 26-2 lead quickly turn to 26-15 after surrendering two West Limestone touchdowns in the final four minutes of the game.
“Finishing the game, finishing the half, finishing the quarter,” Pugh said. “Not giving up throws over the top of our head. For two weeks now, that has cost us a touchdown or two in late moments of the half. Those things will get you beat in a close game. We're young in the secondary and learning from our mistakes. We're working hard in practice, but it doesn't seem like we're doing it in the games. We have to get better there.”
Pugh hopes to have starting quarterback Dillon Parris back for Friday's game. The junior missed last week's game with a minor injury, but Pugh said he believes he will return Friday.
Isaiah Sutherland filled in as quarterback last week, and Pugh said Sutherland will still play a part in the offense even after Parris returns.
“I have confidence in Isaiah,” Pugh said. “Dillon is a little better thrower, but Isaiah will get some reps,” he said. “It's a plus to have two quarterbacks that have different strong points, so teams have to get ready for both of them.”