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Red Bay rides two-game win streak into bye week

Last week’s 24-7 victory over border rival Belmont (MS) gave Red Bay a two-game win streak heading into its bye week, and coach Michael Jackson believes his team is trending in the right direction with five games to go.

“As a team, we played our best game of the season so far,” Jackson said after the Tigers showed balance on offense and came within less than a minute of blanking Belmont on defense. “We still have to clean up some turnovers and penalties, but we played as well as we have all year. We had eighteen first downs to their seven. I thought we controlled the game all the way through.

“From game one to game five, we’ve really improved. We had some young guys who played their best game of the season on Friday, and that’s encouraging. We’d still like to get more kids on the field, but it was good to see some of our new guys play their best game of the year.”

Jackson singled out freshman linebacker Alex Kennedy and a trio of sophomores (defensive end Ethan Meier, center Dylan Hester and guard Caleb Seeley) for the strides they made in the victory over Belmont, but the veterans had a pretty productive night, too. Senior tailback Aaron Lewey posted his fourth consecutive 100-yard effort, rushing for 154 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. Junior quarterback Kolby Bragwell threw for 110 yards on 3-for-3 passing, hooking up with senior wideout Luke Rooker on touchdown tosses of 74 and 13 yards. And senior Max Bullen added 57 rushing yards on just six carries.

As a team, Red Bay (3-2) gained 369 total yards and went a crisp 8-for-11 on third down. The Tigers continued their recent trend of popping explosive gains, picking up at least 10 yards on 13 plays.

“Our offensive line is playing better in the run game,” said Jackson, whose team is now averaging 260.8 rushing yards and 106.8 passing yards per game, along with 27.8 points. “We’ve been able to throw the ball when we want to throw the ball. The last two weeks we’ve probably only thrown the ball ten times, but the passes we’ve completed have been very instrumental in those games. We’ve been able to hurt teams with the passing game.”

Against Belmont, Red Bay converted one third down on a 23-yard pass from Bragwell to senior Skylar Brazil and another on a pass interference penalty. The biggest big-play threat, though, continues to be Rooker, who beat double-coverage on his 74-yard scoring grab and is now averaging 20.8 yards per reception on the season with four touchdown catches.

“Luke has really good hands,” Jackson said of Rooker, who has already set career-highs this year with 16 catches for 332 yards. “He started coming on strong and making some big catches for us late last season, but he broke his hand making a catch against Phil Campbell in week nine. He’s come back and done a really good job for us this year. He probably has the best hands on the team. Pretty much anything he gets close to, he catches.

“The surprising thing is how much of a deep threat he’s been. We sort of looked at him as more of a possession receiver coming into the year. What’s happening is, he actually plays faster than what he is. On Friday nights, he’s playing faster than what he is.”

Jackson said Rooker’s emergence as a deep-ball threat [he also caught a 54-yard touchdown in the opener against Colbert Heights and had seven catches for 96 yards in a loss to Mars Hill] has helped open things up for Red Bay’s run game. With 611 yards and seven touchdowns on 109 carries, Lewey is well on his way to his first 1,000-yard season. [He’s averaging 122.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry.] Bragwell, meanwhile, has run for 360 yards and four touchdowns on 56 carries, and Bullen has 158 yards on 26 attempts (6.1 yards per carry).

Defensively, the Tigers held Belmont to 225 total yards and kept them out of the end zone until the final minute of play. Belmont managed just six plays of 10-plus yards and went 1-for-10 on third down.

“We had a really good week of practice leading up to that game,” Jackson said. “Our defensive coordinator, Coach [Jamie] Purser, knows Belmont as well as anybody, and he had a great game plan for us.”

Freshman linebacker Cam McKinney led Red Bay in tackles again with eight against Belmont, giving him a team-high 42 stops on the season. As a team, the Tigers are holding opponents to 17.2 points and 204.2 total yards per game. Through five games, Red Bay opponents are just 9-for-57 (16 percent) on third down.

The Tigers (1-1 in Class 2A, Region 8) will face their most important (and most challenging) stretch of the season after this weeks’ bye, with consecutive games against Lamar County, Sheffield and Sulligent—all of whom were playoff teams a year ago. Lamar County and Sulligent are both currently unbeaten in region play.

“We have a tough stretch coming up,” Jackson said. “We’re gonna spend this week working on ourselves and hopefully getting healthier. We have some guys who have carried the football a lot so far, and we’d like to get them some rest and also continue to see our young guys improve.”

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