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Improving on offense and fighting tooth and nail for an elusive first win, Golden Tigers head to Hartselle

Russellville put forth its best offensive performance of the season last Friday night against Mae Jemison, but the play head coach Mark Heaton singled out in his post-game address to the team was one that won't appear on many highlight reels.

Leading 41-10 late in the fourth quarter, Jemison sacked Golden Tiger quarterback Luke Barnwell for the sixth time on the night, forcing a fumble in the process. Senior JarQuavius Farrior scooped the loose football of the Milton Frank Stadium turf around his own 25-yard line and was off to the races, an icing-on-the-cake touchdown squarely in his sights.

The 6’3, 185-pound Farrior had at least a 15-yard head start, but Russellville senior Robert Hamilton was undeterred. Hamilton sprinted nearly the length of the entire field before finally tracking Farrior down and tackling him from behind, twelve yards shy of the end zone.

The Jaguars scored two plays later, but that wasn’t the main point. Neither was Hamilton’s 4.4 speed (though it certainly came in handy). Far more meaningful to Heaton was the determination and fighting spirit Hamilton demonstrated while chasing down Farrior in the final minutes of a blowout loss that would drop Russellville’s record to 0-4 for the first time since 1943.

“We talked about that play after the game,” Heaton said on Monday morning. “That’s how our kids are playing right now. Robert is a great example of the kind of guys we want and the way we want our guys to play. He had every reason in the world to let that guy go, but he refused to quit.

“These guys have made up their mind that it’s not about winning and losing right now—it’s about the way we handle ourselves, the way we practice. Last Thursday’s practice was the best practice we’ve had all year. I couldn’t be more proud of these kids and the kind of men they’re growing to be. We’re getting better as a football team, too.”

The final result against Jemison (a 56-10 defeat, Russellville’s most lop-sided loss since a 54-0 pasting by Colbert County in September of 1973) might not show it, but the Golden Tigers (0-4, 0-3 in Class 5A, Region 8) do appear to be making progress in the midst of a trying season. Barnwell, a freshman making his fourth career varsity start, completed his first seven passes against the unbeaten Jaguars for 142 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown toss to senior receiver Bernard Phinizee that gave Russellville a surprising early lead.

By night’s end Barnwell had set new career-highs in attempts (38), completions (24) and passing yards (269) against a Jemison defense that had allowed a total of seven points in its previous three games. Red-zone issues and four turnovers, however, conspired to hold the Golden Tigers to just 10 points—none after kicker Kenner Perez booted a 32-yard field goal early in the second quarter.

“I think when you look at the struggles we’ve had execution-wise,” Heaton said, “we’re starting to pick things up on the offensive side of the ball. We executed really well at times the other night and moved the football. We should have been well over four hundred yards, without the sacks and the execution errors.

“We’ve gotten better every week, and we got better Friday night. In that first half, we executed at a high level. We left two touchdowns on the field, easy.”

Barnwell opened the game with a 29-yard pass to Phinizee, one of his five completions on the night that went for at least 20 yards. He completed multiple passes to six different receivers, including Phinizee (104 yards on five catches), Hamilton (33 yards on eight catches), senior Logan Jones (65 yards on two catches), junior Wylie Boyd (18 yards on two catches) and freshmen Rowe Gallagher (18 yards on two catches) and Brooks Scott (16 yards on two catches).

“The main thing was, we knew a couple of their coverages and tried to dictate what they were in early,” Heaton said. “We took advantage of that, and that early execution gave us some confidence and sort of pushed us through that first half.

“Luke is growing as a quarterback. The experience he’s getting is crucial—there’s no substitute for that. He’s been in some tough situations, and he’s growing up really fast. He takes it very serious. He’s a student of the game, and he’s learning everything he can. There was a lot of stuff he learned Friday night.”

Barnwell, who took over as the starter full-time after dual-threat junior Devin Buckhalter suffered a broken foot in the preseason game at Athens, is getting better by the week, but Friday’s non-region game at Hartselle (3-2) could be his toughest test yet. The holes he was able to exploit in Jemison’s coverage aren’t likely to be there against the sound, disciplined Tiger defense.

“Honestly, I think it’ll be the best defense we’ve seen all year,” Heaton said. “Even down the road, I don’t think we’ll see a better defense than Hartselle’s. They’re always very good. This will be the best look Luke will get as far as being sound on that side of the ball. Those guys have been playing in that system at Hartselle for a long time.”

More consistent production from the running game on Friday night at J.P. Cain Stadium would certainly help. Through four games, the Golden Tigers have rushed for a total of just 128 yards, including minus-four on the ground against Jemison. Barnwell, meanwhile, has already attempted 122 passes, completing 74 of them (61 percent) for 588 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also been intercepted five times and sacked 13 times.

Hamilton is Russellville’s leading rusher on the year, with 98 yards on 38 carries.

“For us, we’re trying to make sure we have solid numbers with everything we do in the run game, to help our offensive line,” Heaton said. “We look for weaknesses, and we tweak what we do to try and exploit those weaknesses. The way Jemison played their front, we knew it was gonna be hard to run the ball. When we throw those swing passes out of the backfield, those tunnel screens and side screens, that is our run game right now.

“Last week we were trying to take advantage of some things. We’ll have to do a little bit more run-oriented stuff this week with Hartselle. The main focus for our guys this week will be first down. It’s crucial for us to stay ahead of the sticks. We can’t get in those long down-and-distance situations against Hartselle, because that’s where they’re really good.”

After opening the season with wins over Cullman, Lawrence County and Athens, Hartselle has dropped back-to-back games against Florence (35-14) and Muscle Shoals (21-7). Two-game losing streak aside, Heaton is impressed with what he’s seen from the Tigers on film.

“Their record really is not an indication of how good they are,” he said. “First of all, they’re very well coached. They’re a very disciplined, very physical football team. We can’t make mistakes against guys like that. They’re very good at what they do.

“We’ll have our hands full, like we do every week. Our goal is to get better than we were last week. We wanted to upset Mae Jemison. We made a run at it, and now the goal this week is to go over there and try and knock off Hartselle. We’re still searching for that first win.”

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