POPLAR BLUFF - Whenever the Sikeston Bulldogs and the Poplar Bluff Mules meet on the football field, the contest brings out the best in each team.
Over the years, even if a school is heavily favored, the game always seems to be close.
In the Charlie Vickery era (1978-2001), only twice has a team defeated the other by more than 20 points. Every other game has usually been a nailbiter.
In fact, 16 times in that span the game has been decided by two touchdowns or less.
"It brings out a lot of the old timers," said Poplar Bluff head coach Mark Barousse. "We sat down Monday and explained some of the history of Poplar Bluff and Sikeston to our kids. No pun intended, but it just seems like a dogfight every year. Records really don't mean much in this game."
Under Vickery, Sikeston holds a 14-10 edge on the Mules, including six in a row from 1991-1997. But since Barousse took over the reigns at Poplar Bluff in 1998, his team has gone 4-0 against the Bulldogs.
Those four games mark the longest winning streak Poplar Bluff has ever had against Sikeston out of the 77 games the two have played.
"The past doesn't mean anything," said Barousse. "If they beat us Friday night then that's what people remember. The past is the past. Friday night is what counts."
Sikeston will try to put an end to the streak when they meet the Mules tomorrow night at 7:30 at Morrow Stadium.
Poplar Bluff will be favored, having started the season 4-0, all convincing victories.
After losing to Jackson in the season-opener, the Bulldogs have had three lopsided wins.
The Mules have won two district titles under Barousse and this year's team, even with the graduation of record-setting quarterback Stan Revelle, may be his most talented yet
"What makes Bluff even tougher this year is that they're running the ball better than what they did last year," said Vickery. "That makes them even more difficult to defend. I think they're an outstanding team. They're just like the teams we've faced thus far, they have a tremendous amount of speed."
Poplar Bluff's Bob Larkins is one of the top rushers in the area, with 407 yards on 43 carries. He has scored seven touchdowns.
Senior Maurice Moss, who scored the Mules' lone touchdown on the opening kickoff in last year's 6-3 win over Sikeston, has rushed for 154 yards on 30 carries.
Currently the No. 1 and No. 6 receivers in the area, senior Brent Little and junior Tony Webb are the Mules' top threats.
Little, a state long jump champion in track, has caught 12 passes for 370 yards (30.8 yards per catch). Webb has caught nine passes for 227 yards (25.2 avg.).
They have combined to catch seven of the Mules' eight TD passes this year.
Senior quarterback Michael Crunk is the top passer in the area. He's completed 35-of-65 passes for 725 yards with only one interception.
Crunk has picked up where Revelle left off.
"He's very accurate and you better not underestimate his arm because he can throw it the ball deep as well," said Vickery. "They're going to try to throw the underneath routes, then when you start creeping up, they go deep. They've certainly got the skill people to get deep on you. We've got to try to eliminate big plays and not give up anything cheap. We've got to make them work for everything that they get."
The Bulldogs have been carried by solid defense and strong special teams play.
Offensively, Sikeston has improved week by week. Barousse views the bigger Bulldog offensive and defensive line as a concern for his squad.
"They're big and physical -- they've been mashing people this year," said Barousse. "We got whipped up front all night long last year -- they manhandled us when they were on defense.
With (Kevin) Keller and (Justin) Lowes on the same side and when the (Myron) Hardin kid comes in and plays center, they're really strong."
The Bulldogs have found a one-two punch at running back in Lavar Morgan and Heath Hunter.
Morgan leads the team with 223 yards on 33 carries while Hunter follows up with 184 yards on 49 carries.
"They have two good tailbacks and they are kind of change of pace," said Barousse. "Heath Hunter is a real smart runner and hits the hole hard -- he gets everything that's available there. Morgan is really more of a shifty runner, he moves side to side and has more big play potential. He tends to dance a little bit more, but that gives them more diversity than they had last year."
The Bulldogs gave up a score last week on special teams, but it continues to be a strength for the team. Andrew Lambert has kicked four field goals this year and the Bulldog return and coverage teams have seen major improvement from last season.
"Sikeston's got some great special teams, especially their punt block," said Barousse. "They've blocked a few in the last two or three weeks and its set their offense up with good field position. Special teams will play a big part but usually the game is won up front."
And that's where Vickery feels his team has to dominate.
"We've just got to try to control the line of scrimmage," said Vickery. "We're going to have to be able to move the ball a little bit. If we can't then we'll be in for a long night."