Game of the Week: Athens faces tough region test in Hartselle

Athens running back Jaylen Gilbert races for an 80-yard touchdown run against Muscle Shoals in a recent game. Gilbert has rushed for seven touchdowns the past two weeks, including four in the Golden Eagles' 49-40 win over Hueytown.

Athens has been lighting up the scoreboard its past few games with a powerful rushing attack, but Golden Eagles coach Cody Gross said his offense will face one of their toughest tests of the season Friday night when they host Class 6A, Region 8 rival Hartselle.

“Hartselle is always going to be hard-nosed and tough,” Gross said. “But the difference in them this year as opposed to other years is their defensive line. They’ve got three hosses in the defensive line. Two of them are 6-(foot)-2, 260, and the other is 6-(foot)-3, 265, and they can play. Normally, they’re not that big.”

Hartselle comes into Friday’s game with a 4-2 overall record and 2-1 region mark. The Tigers have won three in a row, including an impressive 38-14 non-region victory last week over previously undefeated Class 5A power Russellville.

Friday’s game looks to be a battle in the trenches, as Athens’ offensive line has been opening up holes for running back Jaylen Gilbert the past two weeks. Gilbert has rushed for more than 500 yards and scored seven touchdowns in games against Muscle Shoals and Hueytown.

Gross said the ability for Athens’ offensive line to open those same holes against Hartselle’s strong defensive front will probably determine who wins and loses.

“That will probably be the key to the game,” he said. “It is by far the best front we’ve faced. Our offensive line has not faced this challenge that they’re about to face. That’s going to be a huge, huge part of the game.”

Gross said he was very pleased with the way his team rebounded from a last-second loss to Muscle Shoals to defeat Hueytown team.

“That game was huge in a lot of ways,” Gross said of Friday’s win. “We beat a team that was a quarterfinalist last year in 6A. That’s a playoff team, so beating them should give us some confidence.”

Gross said he was also impressed with the way his team finished the game. The previous week against Muscle Shoals, Athens couldn’t score a late touchdown to put the game away and allowed the Trojans to kick a last-second field goal to win.

Last Friday against Hueytown, the Golden Eagles didn’t just hang on to a 42-40 lead, they scored a late touchdown to go up 49-40 and intercepted a Hueytown pass to seal the victory in the final two minutes.

“We had to convert some big third and fourth-down conversions,” Gross said. “We made some plays to keep drives going that were really, really big. So that should give us some confidence.”

While it is only Week 6, Gross said Friday’s game is probably a must-win if Athens (3-2, 2-1) wants to have any chance of finishing in the top two in the region and hosting a first-round playoff game.

Muscle Shoals and Cullman are tied for first with 3-0 region records, while Athens, Hartselle and Buckhorn all sit at 2-1.

“When you think about hosting a playoff game, it’s going to probably be hard to do with two losses in the region,” Gross said. “But that’s the way it is every year. Just about every game in our region is one that if you show up not ready to play, you’re going to get beat. That’s just the way life is in Region 8.”

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