I wouldn't have been surprised if Smiths Station competed at a high level against Auburn. On the contrary, I expected it. I expected the Panthers to play well against the Tigers, though I thought it may come in a loss. I don't think you can come across anyone who has seen Smiths Station play over the past two years and not think it is getting significantly better.
And I wouldn't really have been all that surprised to see Smiths Station pull the upset. I figured it would be a closer game than most people expected. That's why we made it our Game of the Week this week. We knew Smiths Station had its best chance to contend in the region this season with a slew of experienced players on its roster.
But I'd be lying if I said I saw this coming. 34-18? And, really, 34-12 if you don't count the kickoff returned for a touchdown in mop-up time.
No, I never saw that coming. That is a drubbing. That is a leave-no-doubt-we're-the-better-team kind of win. Smiths Station could have won by a field goal or a late score, and we could still leave the game thinking Auburn may have been the better team. That's not the case with Smiths Station's win on Friday. The Panthers are the better team.
Coach Mark Rose doesn't want to say it. He knows how difficult those kinds of wins are to achieve. We see Smiths Station make it look easy in the second half, but we don't see the hours in the weight room and on the practice field. So, when he says that this win doesn't mean anything, that there's a long season left and the players have to keep things in perspective, I completely understand.
I don't have to think about that, though, so I'll say it for him:
Smiths Station is absolutely a region title contender in Region 3 Class 6A. Sure, there is still Carver-Montgomery and Opelika in the way, either of which could beat Smiths Station. But with its win on Friday, Smiths Station has put itself into an early tie with Opelika at 2-0 in the region. With Central 0-2 and Auburn 1-1 with a loss to the Panthers, Smiths Station is essentially two games up on two of the main region contenders.
Nothing is written in stone, of course. Smiths Station, like every team, has a long season in front of it. Like Rose said, this team doesn't really know how to handle this kind of success because it hasn't experienced it in a long time. Still, simply judging by the eye test on the field Friday night, the Panthers look every bit like a team that could contend at a high level all year long.
There are a few things that give me that impression.
First, the defense
It's hard to say if this unit was really the star of the game or not. Speaking with players and coaches afterwards, I heard some reporters ask about the offense and its big plays in the second half.
I was more interested in the defense.
I could make a list of names of guys that played lights out, but I'd be afraid to leave someone out. There were that many guys that deserve recognition.
Anfernee Moffett, Johnny Woods, Trey Harris, Marcus Maddox...
The list could go on. The first two names intercepted passes, the former in the first half and the latter in the second half. Woods' pick led to a quick score for the Panthers that put them ahead 27-12 in the fourth quarter.
But it wasn't just the turnovers.
Everywhere Auburn tried to go with the ball, a black helmet was there. (Listen to coach Mark Rose talk about the defense in the video below.)
The Panthers were in the backfield, forcing Auburn quarterback Bradley Northcutt from the pocket on nearly every play (or so it seemed). Moffett and a handful of other recorded sacks in the game. And when they didn't, the secondary was on top of its game, tipping passes, timing hits and getting interceptions.
By my count, the Tigers notched only 36 yards in the second half, including a goose egg in offensive scoring. Their only six points after the break came on an 85-yard kickoff return by Tyus Flakes. Flaked was solid on the ground, controlling the ball a lot in the first half. In the second half, however, he notched only 14 yards.
To me, if there's one thing I really have to circle from this game, it's the defense's performance in the second half.
But don't forget about the offense...
The offense did about as well as it could in the first two quarters.
It protected the ball and it got seven points on a 4-yard DeVante Marshall touchdown run.
Still, at halftime I got the impression the Panthers had missed the opportunity it needed to give itself a real chance in the game. Though it may have been the defense that gave it more opportunities in the second half, we can't ignore how crisp the Panthers offensive attack was after the break.
It's hard to fit every name into a game story, so I'll do it here. Helmet stickers go to:
Quarterback Jerrell Gilmore: He threw more than normal tonight, and he may not be remembered when you consider the effort put for by the defense, but he was superb. He did everything the team needed of him. He protected the football, with the exception of one interception that led to three points for Auburn, and he managed the game beautifully. Most of the time, he was called on for short- to mid-range passes. When the situation called for the big strikes, though, he came up big, hitting Johnny Woods for a 48-yard pass that set up a short touchdown run and DeVante Marshall for a 63-yard touchdown pass.
Running back DeVante Marshall: He picked up 90 yards and a touchdown on the ground to go with the 63-yard touchdown reception. Like the Panthers needed, he really established that ground game that kept the ball in Panthers possession and opened things up through the air. Though Smiths Station came up empty on its opening drive, Marshall set the tone early, picking up 19 on his first run.
The offensive line: Make sure the big guys get their due, as well. This game couldn't be won if it wasn't won in the trenches. Smiths Station's line did what Auburn could not, which is keep the defense out of the backfield. Gilmore had time to pass and the running backs had room to operate.
There's a good chance I left out a name or two in this rundown. Honestly, it's impossible to highlight everything Smiths Station did right on Friday.
Rose is right, of course. There's a long way to go, and it is way too early to say this team is definitely headed to the playoffs or anything like that. Friday's win was more than an upset, though. This was a team that had finally turned a corner. I said to a colleague during the game that this team looked completely different from last year, like a real football team.
I'm convinced, now, of how good the Panthers are, and I wonder how good they could be.
For 15 years, Smiths Station has offered little resistance to Auburn High's dominance in this annual showdown. Only once, in 2004, did the Panthers pull out a victory.
Last year, Reuben Foster and company torched a solid Smiths Station squad, 48-7, to extend that dominance. This year, the Panthers are hoping for a change of pace.
Speaking with players and coaches this week, I got the impression that they are confident they can compete at a higher level this time around. No one offered predictions of victory or statement games. They simply noted their improvements and said they could compete at a high level.
And they can.
It will take a few things, though.
For one, the Panthers can't give Auburn second chances. Running back DeVante Marshall circled that as one of the keys to the game. They all know how talented Auburn can be and how difficult it is to come back after falling behind. If Smiths Station wants to have a chance in this game, it must limit Auburn's opportunities, get to the fourth and make it a one-quarter game.
Smiths Station also needs to control the ball. The running game will be key, which is a good thing considering how successful the Panthers have been in that regard through the season's first two weeks. If they can control the line of scrimmage on offense, move the ball successfully on the ground, open up the aerial attack on a handful of plays and keep the Auburn offense off the field, they will give themselves a chance.
And the most important thing Smiths Station needs to do is not let the situation get the best of them. It's a region game that could give it a leg up going forward. It comes against a very talented team that has had its number for a long time. Still, the Panthers need to treat this like any other game and not shrink from the challenge.
If the Panthers can do these things and execute its own game plan, they can give themselves a chance late in the game.
Easier said than done.
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