Like I said before the game, it isn't the wins or losses that make Russell County look like a vastly improved team, it's the way it plays in those wins and losses.
Friday night was a perfect example.
The Warriors lost to Eufaula 35-22. The defense made too many mistakes in the first half, and the offense made a couple costly mistakes in the second half. The team isn't perfect.
But consider the fact that this game was 48-0 last season. Last season, Russell County was out of the game early and didn't have the horses to make any kind of second-half push. Things have changed a lot over the past year.
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Down 28-9 at halftime and appearing to be on its way to an ugly defeat, Russell County came out and scored back-to-back touchdowns to cut the score to 28-22 with 11:54 left in the game.
That was as close as the team would get, but you could sense the never-say-die attitude, the belief in the minds of the players that they belong on the same field with teams like Eufaula, which is undoubtedly on its way to the playoffs (a win in its next game would likely be enough to get it in).
When building a program, the most important thing to me is building confidence in the minds of the players, consistency in their play and effort in their practice. When it comes to games, you'll lose sometimes. Sometimes the athletes on the other sideline are just that good (and Eufaula was pretty solid). It's the way you win or lose that really determines your progress.
To me, Russell County looks like a playoff team, and if I had to make a prediction now, I'd say that's where it will be at the end of the season.
A look at the four keys
Defense: Keep it close
Yes and no for the Warriors on this one. No, the defense didn't play its best in the first half. It gave up too many big plays, it missed too many tackles and it allowed too many points. Twenty-eight before the break is not a recipe for success.
With that said, the unit played much better in the second half. It faltered just once on a long, run-heavy touchdown drive halfway through the final quarter. After cutting the Tigers lead to six, Russell County was subjected to 10 consecutive runs by Eufaula running back Desmond Richards, totaling 68 yards and a score to put the game out of reach. Aside from that, the D deserves a tip of the cap for its halftime adjustments.
Need some life on offense
It got it in a couple ways. For one, the offense came out in the second half to put back-to-back touchdown drives together to cut the Tiger lead to six points. Both scores came on long touchdown passes by Byron Johnson, one to Calvyn Johnson and the other to Dontavious Hill. The Warriors also got a solid 109 yards and one touchdown rushing from sophomore running back Joshua Johnson. (Note: Keep your eye on Joshua Johnson. I've seen him play twice this year, and come away incredibly impressed both times. He's quick and shifty, very difficult to tackle. On his longest run of the night, he took a handoff and carried down to the far sideline before running into traffic. He then cut back a yard around a line of blockers, ran all the way to the opposite sideline on his way down the field for a 43-yard gain.)
The problem the offense faced was miscommunication between quarterback and receiver on a couple of occasions, resulting in two second-half interceptions. It also set itself up with a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line late in the game, where a touchdown would have made it a 35-29 game. A botched snap resulted in a fumble and backed the team up about 10 yards, and it was unable to get a score on the drive.
As I said before, I know the team can't be perfect. What I meant was that it couldn't make costly errors that could give Eufaula extra chances or take away its own. If there was one area that cost Russell County the game, this is it. On a handful of occasions, it had the Tigers' offense in long-yardage situations. More often than not, the Tigers were able to convert first downs on long plays plagued by missed assignments and missed tackles. Offensively, see the previous bullet point. Fumbling at the 3-yard line is very costly.
If the Warriors can continue to iron these points out and avoid these little errors that end up causing big problems, they'll find themselves competing with just about any team that is thrown at them.
Play within yourself
Russell County gets an A here. It didn't get caught up in the hometown crowd or the intensity of a big region game. Overall, the Warriors handled themselves well and gave themselves a chance to win late in the game. That's really all you can ask for.
Running back Joshua Johnson: 17 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown rushing; 4 receptions for 25 yards
Caleb Smith: In addition to his play on defense, he carried the ball eight times for 79 yards on offense
Quarterback Byron Johnson: The numbers weren't particularly overwhelming, but he had two touchdown passes of 38 and 22 yards in the second half, cutting the Tigers lead to 28-22 at the time.
Wide receiver/defensive back Jaylin Robinson: He was everywhere--2 receptions for 53 yards and 2 touchdowns, an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and two interceptions on defense.
Quarterback Marcellas Butler: 9 of 15 for 237 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interceptions. Two hundred and three of his 237 passing yards came in the first half.
Running back Desmond Richards: 31 carries for 159 yards and one touchdown rushing, 1 reception for 75 yards and a touchdown.
7:30 p.m. ET--With two wins in its first three games, the season has already shaped up to be an early success for the Russell County football team.
But it isn't just the record and the potential of a playoff berth (well) down the road. It's more about how the team has played in those three games. Even in an opening-week loss to Central, the Warriors competed at a high level, looking much improved from the team that was shut out at Garrett-Harrison Stadium last year.
Since then, it has picked up wins over Carroll and Rehobeth, allowing only 20 points in the two wins.
Tonight, it gets another stiff test in region foe Eufaula, which won this game 48-0 last year, the third shutout in the Warriors' first three games. Win or lose, it's another statement game for Russell County, a chance to prove how far it has come over the past year.
In order to do that, it's going to require a few things from its players as well as a couple bounces of the ball in the right direction.
Defense: Keep it close
Once again, the Warriors will rely on their defense to make this a competitive game. Thus far, that has been an alright formula. Russell County, while it doesn't have hardly any depth to speak of, can play with some of the best offenses out there on defense. It limited Central for three quarters before running out of steam in a 34-15 loss. Linebackers Chevel and Caleb Smith lead the way, both notching over 100 tackles a year ago, but there's more to it than just them. It's imperative that the unit is able to make stops tonight, as in any week, because the offense hasn't been able to find a lot of traction so far. If the Warriors are playing catch-up, it's unlikely they'll be able to keep up with the Tigers.
Still, they need a little life from the offense
The Warriors have not broken 20 points in three games this season, scoring 15 against Central, 19 against Carroll and 14 against Rehobeth. Two of those were wins, but they'll be hard-pressed to win a game like that against Eufaula, which has averaged 38 points per game so far this year. Joshua Johnson has been impressive in the running game for Russell County, breaking 100 yards against Central and Rehobeth. If he and the Warriors offensive front can find some success in the running game, the Russell County defense should be able to make this a competitive contest into the fourth quarter. In a game like this, that's really what you're hoping for if you're Russell County.
Alright, I know perfection isn't really attainable. The team will make a mistake here and there no matter what. What Russell County needs, though, is a clean game. It can't give Eufaula extra chances. If they force the Tigers into a fourth down, the Warriors can't get penalized. The football can't touch the ground or defensive backs' hands when they're on offense. This is all obvious stuff, but it can't be stressed how important it is for Russell County to play its cleanest game thus far.
Play within yourself
This is one of those cliches that football players and coaches like to use: Staying within yourself. What that means is that the Warriors can't get caught up in the crowd or the size of the game. They need to focus on themselves, trust the game plan and execute the things they've been working on all week.
If they can do that, they're going to give themselves a chance.
Follow David for live updates throughout the game on Twitter @leprepsports or at http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2013/09/20/2700563/comments-tweets-and-scores-from.html.