By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Knowing how difficult it’s been for teams to run on Muscle Shoals’ highly touted defense this season, Cullman’s coaching staff decided to try its luck through the air Friday night at home.
But as the Bearcats quickly figured out, it’s not a whole lot easier to pass against Class 5A’s No. 1 team, either.
Quarterback Zac Crocker did pile on 187 yards and two touchdowns for the Black and Gold, but that was no match for the Trojans, who rode the legs of Tyler Jackson to a 35-19 Region 8 title-clinching victory.
Despite the decent numbers, Crocker needed 54 attempts and 29 completions, most of which were short screens, to get them. Garrett Crider and Drew Johnson were used sparingly on the ground, combining for 28 yards on seven carries.
“Their biggest deal is they stone the run,” Cullman coach Mark Britton said of Muscle Shoals. “We weren’t having very much success running the football, so we ended up having to throw all the time. Any time you get one-dimensional, especially in the region we’re in, it’s going to be a tough night.”
The Trojans (9-0, 7-0) didn’t waste much time jumping out to a 14-0 lead after Jackson scored twice in three offensive plays midway through the first quarter. The speedster broke through the middle of the field for a 49-yard touchdown run on his first carry and then scampered in from 60 yards out on the exact same play to start — and finish — Muscle Shoals’ next possession.
Behind impeccable performances by Jackson and Jamarcus Nance, the Trojans racked up a whopping 467 rushings yards, 268 of which came in the second half.
Jackson had the most with 229 yards on 13 carries, capping off his night with a 62-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Next up was Nance, who went wild in the second half for 113 of his 141 yards, including a late 5-yard score up the gut.
“It’s hard to simulate things like that in practice,” Britton said of the duo’s speed. “Those two big plays early in the game really hurt us, and that’s the thing about this team. They’ve got such big-play capability with their great speed. You just have a small breakdown and they exploit it.”
Muscle Shoals’ only other score came on a 19-yard connection between Ryan Ware and Javian Ramson.
Down 21-0 early in the fourth quarter, Crocker and the Bearcat (7-2, 5-2) offense began to find its rhythm for the first time. After completing lengthy passes to Houston Turner and Troy Forrest, Crocker zipped a 7-yard strike to Turner in the end zone, who managed to tip the ball and secure it before crashing to the turf.
Crocker hit Turner for another touchdown, this time from 11 yards out, later in the fourth quarter. Chris Grey’s extra-point attempt was blocked, bringing the score to 35-13.
With the game already out of hand, Cullman’s defense took advantage of a mistake by Jeremy Thigpen to grab its last points of the night. The Trojans’ backup running back coughed up the ball around his own 30-yard line, allowing Bearcat senior Reid Harrison to scoop it up and take it the rest of the way.
As expected, Muscle Shoals standout defensive lineman Dee Liner wreaked havoc on the Bearcats’ O-line. The five-star Auburn commit intercepted an early Crocker pass after tipping it in the backfield and also got his hands on a punt. If that weren’t enough, Liner also had a handful of touchbacks as the Trojans’ kickoff specialist.
With Russellville’s 6-3 upset of Hartselle Friday night, there’s now a three-way tie for second in the region among the Bearcats, Golden Tigers and Tigers. Which team ultimately earns the No. 2 seed, which comes with home-field advantage in the first round, will come down to the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s oft-confusing tiebreakers.
The first deals with records against non-region opponents, making next week’s matchup with Center Point that much more important for the Black and Gold. Britton wasn’t entirely sure where Cullman stacks up out of the three squads immediately after Friday’s game but said winning the season finale would obviously put the Bearcats in the best position for the second spot.
“We need to take care of next week,” he said. “This week, we’ve got to look at the film, learn from it, go back to work and try to fix some things.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.