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Red Bay readies for 'get-in' game against Sheffield

The high school football playoffs don’t officially begin until November 10, but Red Bay coach Michael Jackson and the Tigers are operating on a different schedule.

As far as they’re concerned, the postseason starts now.

“This is a playoff game—that’s how we’re approaching it,” said Jackson, whose team will host Sheffield on Friday in what amounts to a do-or-die showdown at Fred Bostick Memorial Stadium. “Anything that happens after this week can help our chances and improve our standing, but with the way the region looks right now, this is basically a get-in game.”

Red Bay (3-3 overall, 1-2 in Class 2A, Region 8) hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1998, a streak of 18 consecutive appearances. If the Tigers want to keep that streak alive, they’ll almost certainly need to beat Sheffield (2-5, 2-2) on Friday. A loss would drop Red Bay to 1-3 in region play, with a tough road game at Sulligent (5-1, 3-0) looming next week.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are also in must-win mode; their only other remaining region game after Friday’s trip to Red Bay is next week against region co-leader Lamar County (5-2, 4-0).

Both Sheffield and Red Bay lost to Mars Hill, which appears to be in line for the No. 3 seed.

“This is a really big region game, obviously,” Jackson said on Sunday night. “Our kids are excited to play it and excited about having it at home. We’re expecting a really good game.”

Jackson was encouraged by his team’s performance last week in a hostile environment at Lamar County. Red Bay lost 21-12 but largely bottled up the Bulldogs’ big-play passing attack, holding them well below their season average of 35.3 points per game.

The Tigers also made two big plays of their own (touchdown runs of 71 yards by Aaron Lewey and 66 yards by Max Bullen) and had two more nullified by game-changing penalties. [A 96-yard kickoff return for a score by Bullen was negated by a flag for a blind-side block, and a 50-yard run by Lewey down inside the Lamar County 10-yard line was wiped out by a holding call.]

“I was very pleased with how our kids played,” said Jackson, whose team rushed for 211 yards on 33 attempts while holding the Bulldogs to just 106 yards through the air. “I thought our guys played extremely hard, and for the most part we did what we set out to do. We were able to hold them from making big plays in the passing game. The first time they threw the deep ball, [freshman corner] Jalen Vinson picked it off. They didn’t really try any more deep balls after that.

“The thing that hurt us was having a couple of big plays called back on penalties. We made some big plays, but having those two called back hurt us. We missed a field goal in the first half, too, so we definitely left some points on the field. But overall I was pleased with how we played. Several of our young guys played their best game of the season, which is what you’re looking for at this time of year. To be in the game with the region champions and have an opportunity to win it at their place was big for us.”

Vinson’s interception was just part of a big night by several young players on defensive coordinator Jamie Purser’s unit. Fellow freshmen Alex Kennedy and Cam McKinney, the team’s starting inside linebackers, combined to make 18 tackles.

“We had nine underclassmen starting on defense,” Jackson said, “and only a couple of those were juniors. We had six sophomores and freshmen starting on that side of the ball. I was really pleased with the way they hung in there. Coach Purser did a great job getting our guys prepared for the game. He really broke [Lamar County] down and had our guys ready to play.”

Despite those efforts, the Bulldogs still managed to rush for 237 yards and go 9-for-14 on third down. [Red Bay’s first five opponents had combined to convert just nine of 57 third-down opportunities.]

“We really put a lot of focus on taking away their big plays in the passing game,” Jackson said. “Because of that, they were able to get in some third-and-three and third-and-two situations, and they did a good job converting those. They were able to hold the ball a lot in the third and fourth quarter.”

Lewey, a senior tailback, posted his fifth straight 100-yard game, finishing with 117 on 17 carries. His 71-yard touchdown run came on a fourth-and-one play from his own 29-yard line with a minute left in the first half, just a few plays after the Tigers had already converted a fourth-and-short inside their own 20 on a quarterback sneak.

“[Lamar County] had just scored, and we did not want to punt the ball back to them,” Jackson said of his decision to go for it twice on fourth down deep on his own end. “Our goal was just to keep the football and run out the clock. But on those short-yardage plays, everybody is up close to the line of scrimmage, and if you block it well and make one man miss, it can be a big play.”

Lewey’s touchdown run (his eighth of the season) cut Lamar County’s lead to 14-6 at the half. The Bulldogs scored midway through the third quarter to make it 21-6, but Bullen, a senior receiver, broke loose for a 66-yard run on a jet sweep with 11:00 left in the game to cut the lead to 21-12. Neither team would score again.

Bullen finished with 87 yards on eight carries, and senior receiver Luke Rooker caught three passes for 54 yards. Junior quarterback Kolby Bragwell threw for 69 yards on 4-for-15 passing, and each team threw one interception.

The Tigers now turn their full attention to Friday’s must-win battle with Sheffield, which is coming off a 41-22 win over Hatton last week. Quarterback Lanier Cheattom had a monster night for the Bulldogs, rushing for 163 yards and three touchdowns on 10 carries while also throwing for 85 yards and three scores on 6-for-9 passing.

“Sheffield has some very explosive skill players and a really good quarterback,” said Jackson, whose team beat Hatton 32-30 on September 15. “Their running back, Ced Carroll, runs the ball really hard. He was hurt earlier in the year, but it looks like he’s back to full-speed now. I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re gonna get their best shot this week.”

Lewey, who ran for more than 100 yards last season in a loss to Sheffield, is having a big senior season, with 728 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 126 attempts. He’s averaging 121.3 yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry. Bullen has added 245 rushing yards on just 34 attempts, an average of 7.2 yards per carry. Bragwell has also played a key role in the ground game, rushing for 366 yards and four touchdowns on 61 attempts.

As a team, Red Bay averages 252.5 yards per game on the ground.

Bragwell has also thrown for 603 yards on 33-for-77 passing, with four touchdowns and seven interceptions. Rooker has caught all four of those touchdown passes and leads the team with 19 catches for 386 yards, an average of 20.3 yards per reception.

“They key for us offensively will be to do what we do—run the ball and take our shots in the passing game,” Jackson said. “Defensively, we have to contain the quarterback and limit their big plays. We have to make them earn everything they get. We can’t give them anything easy.”

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