By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
There’s always a lot on the line when Cullman takes the field against Russellville.
In 2009, it was a chance to reach the semifinals. The year before, it was the opportunity to play in the Class 5A state championship.
But what will be at stake when the two 4-1 (2-1 in Region 8) teams hit the gridiron in Russellville this Friday?
Oh, not much. Just a far simpler path to the playoffs, as well as a valuable advantage if a head-to-head tiebreaker situation arises in a brutal region with five contenders fighting for four playoff spots.
“I think Russellville and us, we’ve got to win this game,” coach Mark Britton said. “It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be a major step up for whoever wins this ballgame Friday.”
And there’s pride, too. For a Bearcat program that’s lost the last 10 meetings and 11 of 12 overall — their only win was a 3-0 road triumph in the second round of the 1986 playoffs — a Week 6 victory against the Golden Tigers would be monumental.
“A lot of our brothers and dads haven’t beat Russellville,” Cullman wide receiver Troy Forrest said. “It’d be nice to get that win for us and say we’ve beat them. If we do, we’ll most likely be in the playoffs. We don’t want to make it come down to either beating Athens or Muscle Shoals.”
Before Forrest and the Bearcats look ahead to those Week 8 and 9 matchups, they’ll have to get past Russellville this Friday, a task no one associated with the Black and Gold is taking lightly.
Led by crazy-fast running back Tyler Boyd, his backup Deandre Coleman and freshman quarterback Landon Smothers, the Golden Tiger offense has been deadly this year, scoring 63, 37 and 34 points in wins over West Point, East Limestone and Deshler.
The key to stopping that attack is containing Russellville’s speed, according to Britton. However, Cullman defensive back Josh Reed is taking a slightly more straightforward approach.
“I think if everybody does their part and everybody does what they’re supposed to do, we’ll be fine,” said the senior, adding that it probably helped to have faced Madison Academy’s own speedster Kerryon Johnson just last week.
Russellville has also been just as sharp on defense, using last week’s 16-0 shutout versus Walker to pull dead even with the Bearcats with an average of 18.2 points allowed per game.
Cullman doesn’t plan on serving up the Golden Tigers’ second straight goose egg, though. Not with quarterback Zac Crocker clicking on all cylinders with his stable of senior wide receivers in Forrest, Mason Jones, Houston Turner and Wesley Hendrix. Not with running backs Garrett Crider and Drew Johnson plowing over defenders every week, either.
Britton admitted the Bearcats’ best defense could be their offense this week. The less touches Boyd and Coleman receive, the less damage the duo can do on the edges.
“We’ve got to play with a really good attitude as far as being physical,” the coach said. “It’s going to take a total commitment. It’s going to take something like a Hartselle effort like we had that week to come out of there successful.”
With Cullman-Russellville and Muscle Shoals-Hartselle on tap for this Friday night, there are too many playoff implications to count.
If the Trojans win, they’d take a stranglehold on the region’s No. 1 spot and leave the Bearcat-Golden Tiger winner tied with the Tigers in second. But if they lose, they’d be tied for first with Hartselle and the victor of the Cullman-Russellville battle.
Of course, there are plenty of games left to be played, and neither of the aforementioned situations include Athens, which is also expected to have a say in the region’s playoff picture.
With five teams and only four postseason berths, that means one very deserving team is going to be left sitting on the couch while the others fight for the 5A trophy.
“You’ve got four region games right in a row,” Britton said. “What you do in the next month is going to be really important, whether you’re in or out. I think any of the teams that come out of this region will have a chance to make a good run in the playoffs.”
As far as tiebreakers are concerned, the coach knows one easy way for his team to hold their fate in their own hands — keep winning games, starting with Friday night versus Russellville.
“You don’t want to get to that,” Britton said of a tiebreaker situation. “That’s what we’re telling the kids. You want to take care of business and win it on the field.”
‰ Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.