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Russellville hopes to start second-half roll against St. John Paul II

Russellville football coach Mark Heaton is a bona fide film junkie, but he also recognizes there’s a time to look back and a time to look forward.

Sunday afternoon, Heaton was in no mood to relive the Golden Tigers’ performance at Hartselle in a 51-0 loss that dropped their record to 0-5. Watching it in person last Friday night was hard enough.

“We weren’t ready to play football,” said Heaton, whose team trailed 30-0 at the end of one quarter and finished the night with just 57 yards of offense and three first downs, compared to 481 total yards and 22 first downs for Hartselle. “At the end of the day, you’ve gotta get off the bus with a mindset of trying to win a football game, and we just weren’t there. That showed early. A lot of it was a lack of execution early. We had guys who weren’t completing their assignments like they were supposed to and who weren’t focusing on the things they were supposed to focus on, and it showed. They jumped on us pretty quick, and we had a hard time battling back.

“We didn’t spend a lot of time rehashing that on Sunday. I just came in and told our guys I was disappointed and I hoped they were, too. Winners don’t go into a game with that kind of attitude, and I expect that to change. But we weren’t gonna go back and watch any Hartselle film. We were gonna start focusing on St. John Paul.”

The Golden Tigers (0-5, 0-3 in Class 5A, Region 8) will kick off the second half of the season on Friday night at Discovery Middle School in Madison with a game against the also-winless Falcons (0-5, 0-3), who are coming off a bye week and haven’t played since a 42-21 loss at Ardmore on September 22. Russellville and St. John Paul are tied for last in the region standings, but Heaton still believes his team can turn things around over the final five weeks and make a push for the playoffs.

He believes his players believe it, too.

“I think so,” he said on Monday morning. “That was the main concern yesterday, just seeing where they are. And I challenged them with that. I told them, ‘You guys wanted to be a playoff team. That was one of our goals that we wanted to accomplish together. And that’s attainable.’

“The second half of our schedule is a lot different than the first half. It should be a little bit more competitive for us. That’s what we’ve been working toward. It’s been a long first half of the year, but there’s still a lot we can accomplish. To do that, we’ve gotta work our tails off. These guys showed up here at six o’clock this morning with a good attitude, and that’s all we can ask for.”

In their first 0-5 start since 1943, the Golden Tigers have been out-scored 212-19 by Deshler, Lee of Huntsville, Lawrence County, Mae Jemison and Hartselle—five teams with a combined record thus far of 20-7. Tough home games remain with reigning Region 8 champion Brooks (3-1 overall) and non-region rival Colbert County (3-2), but Russellville also faces St. John Paul, East Limestone and Ardmore—three teams with a combined record of 4-11 on the season.

If a dramatic turnaround is to happen, it must start Friday against the Falcons, who have been out-scored 224-35 in losses to West Morgan, Curry, Lawrence County, Jemison and Ardmore. St. John Paul has lost 35 consecutive games on the field [they were technically credited with a win by forfeit over J.O. Johnson in 2015 due to the Jags’ use of an ineligible player] since the start of the 2014 season, including all three meetings with Russellville by an aggregate score of 162-21.

“This is a great opportunity for us to get a region win, one that we desperately need,” Heaton said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to consistent execution. That’s what wins the game, and that’s where we’ve struggled. But we’re gonna continue to work on it.”

After making major strides in the passing game against Jemison in Week 4 [freshman quarterback Luke Barnwell set career-highs with 24 completions and 269 yards], the Golden Tigers got virtually nothing going on offense last Friday at Hartselle. Barnwell finished 11-for-20 for 35 yards with one interception, and the running game continued to struggle, producing just 22 yards on 20 attempts.

“Hartselle is a great football team,” Heaton said. “They’re very sound defensively, always right where they’re supposed to be. With the passing game, there just wasn’t a lot there on Friday night. That’s the way it appeared, but at the same time we had guys running the wrong routes, guys not running routes at all who should have been, and a young quarterback who’s still in that growing process.

“But with where we are as a football team, I still think that’s our strength right now, the passing game. We’re trying to continue developing the run game week to week. The goal is to put it all together, and you know how that goes—once it starts rolling, you gain some confidence in what you’re doing, and that makes a huge difference.”

The Golden Tigers have now rushed for a total of 150 yards this season as a team, an average of just 30 yards per game. Heaton is hopeful that some personnel adjustments can spark the ground attack on Friday night.

“We’re going to try another personnel change or two early in the week to try and help us establish some run-game stuff,” he said on Monday. “Right now, we’re still trying to find that fit. It’s been tough, but I think there’s some opportunity for us to establish that this week. We’re trying to plug in a new personnel grouping that may help us. We’ll see how that goes.”

Defensively, Russellville will look to get back on track after surrendering 50-plus points in consecutive games for the first time since October of 1932. Heaton believes the Golden Tigers will have the opportunity to win the battle at the line of scrimmage with their experienced defensive line led by senior ends Jeff Lloyd, Roman Cortez and John David Aycock.

“They have the potential to dominate up front,” Heaton said. “But sometimes dominating with your defensive front means you’re actually occupying a couple of offensive linemen so they can’t get on your linebackers. That’s where we have got to progress, getting those guys to come downhill and make plays when we occupy them up front. If the defensive line an take control, we should be okay.

“We’ll have an opportunity to have a good night up front, and offensively I think we’ll have the same opportunity.”

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