By Matthew Martin/Sports Correspondent
Once a team gets to the postseason, the old adage is that a team must play as clean a game as possible in order to be victorious.
Etowah, unfortunately, found out how quick a game can turn last Friday (Nov. 9) in Attalla.
The Blue Devils turned over the ball five times as Russellville blew the game open early en route to a 49-6 victory in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs.
“We have quality young men, and they work hard and try hard,” Etowah coach Sam McCorkle said. “It was one of those games where nothing went right. I have to give Russellville credit, but we could not get a break. It was a freaky game, with the fumble returns and long runs. I don’t think there’s that much difference in the teams. We just couldn’t put it all together. I’ve been doing it a long time, and I’ve never been in one like that one.”
The Golden Tigers used two fumble returns for touchdowns and two long runs to open a 28-0 lead before Etowah really settled into the game. By then, however, it was too late.
Looking at the statistics, it is easy to see why McCorkle felt the game was evenly matched, regardless of the game’s final score.
Minus the two long Russellville runs in the first half, Etowah held the Golden Tigers in check.
Russellville finished the game with 410 total yards – 302 yards rushing, 108 through the air – while the Blue Devils managed 93 yards rushing and 172 yards passing, or 265 yards total.
When playing against a team such as the third-seeded Russellville – whose Region 8 swept all four playoff matchups against Etowah’s Region 7 – a team can’t put the ball on the ground and expect to win.
Included in Region 8 are No. 1 Muscle Shoals, second-seeded Cullman and defending state champion Hartselle. Cullman, Hartselle and Russellville each defeated one another, forcing a three-way tie behind undefeated Muscle Shoals, and sending the Golden Tigers to face Etowah on the road.
“We played a bunch of good teams,” Russellville coach Michael Jackson said about his team’s regular-season schedule. “One service ranked our schedule as the third-hardest in the state, behind two other teams in our region, because our non-region teams (on our schedule) were Fayette County, Deshler and Walker – and Walker was a region champion in Region 6.
“Playing those games, each and every week you play against very talented people. So your kids have to work each and every week. There’s never an easy game.”
After playing such a tough schedule leading up to the playoffs, the biggest difference against the Blue Devils was turnovers.
Etowah gave away the ball seven times to just two Russellville turnovers, including turnovers on three of the first five Blue Devil possessions. And when factoring in two of the Blue Devils’ mistakes were interceptions at the goal line and another on a drive that began at the Golden Tiger 31-yard line, it is easy to see the lopsided nature of the contest.
“Our defense has been doing a good job of causing turnovers and putting us in good position, offensively,” Jackson said. “Our goal on defense was to cause turnovers and get our offense into the flow and get some one-on-one matchups. We thought we had some good one-on-one matchups with our running backs against their defensive backs.”
All one has to do is look at the opening drive of the game to see how effective Russellville was at causing turnovers and just how frustrating those miscues were to Etowah.
After starting the game with a first down and steady movement of the ball, Russellville’s Oscar Graham scooped up a fumble and raced untouched for a 55-yard touchdown. Adam Brown’s PAT increased the lead to 7-0 with 9:46 left in the opening quarter.
Later in the quarter, the Golden Tigers used a big offensive play to push the lead to 14-0. CJ Posey raced around the left end and outran Etowah defenders to the end zone for a 70-yard score. Brown added the point-after kick.
The Blue Devils got an extended drive on their next possession, but a turnover prevented them from scoring when Russellville’s Jordan Gist came up with an interception inside the Tiger 10-yard line.
That drive was like so many frustrating possessions for Etowah in the first two quarters.
Four times in the first half, Etowah drove into Golden Tiger territory, only to come away scoreless.
Meanwhile, the big plays continued for Russellville (9-2).
Kaelan Bonds returned another Pinson fumble, this time 60 yards for a touchdown to increase the lead to 21-0.
The Golden Tigers would add two more scores – a 69-yard Tyler Boyd run and a 6-yard Bud Coleman run – to increase their lead to 35-0 at the half.
Landon Smothers threw a 63-yard touchdown pass to Coleman, to push the lead to 49-0. This came after Coleman rushed in from 1-yard out earlier in the third quarter.
Etowah (7-4) finally got on the board when Tyler Bishop connected with Xavier Caldwell on a 21-yard touchdown strike with 4:30 left in the third quarter. The point-after attempt was missed for the final score.
Bishop completed 11-of-20 passes for 173 yards and the touchdown. Pinson gained 34 yards on 10 carries and also caught a pair of passes for five yards.
“We thought we could run on them,” McCorkle said. “Actually on film, they (Russellville’s defense) looked a lot stronger than they were and we did run on them. We just wanted to make positive plays.
“What happens, when you get a penalty, you get into long yardage, and you have to leave what your plan was and we got in some situations where we had to change what we were doing.”
For Russellville, Smothers completed 6-of-6 passes for 108 yards, while Boyd had 112 yards on the ground. Posey added 83 yards rushing for the Golden Tigers.
“I really hate it for our players to finish this way, especially the seniors, who have been with us the whole time we’ve been here.” McCorkle said. “I am proud of every one of them and I love every one of them.”
Russellville travels to an undefeated McAdory (11-0) on Friday in the second round of the playoffs.