SIKESTON - The Sikeston Bulldog football team will try to keep its playoff hopes alive on Friday night when they entertain visiting SEMO North rival Poplar Bluff at 7:30.
The Bulldogs, who lost its district opener to Cape Central last week 30-13, must defeat the Mules in order to have a chance to make the playoffs.
But defeating the Mules will be no small task.
Poplar Bluff has defeated Sikeston five straight times. That streak snapped Sikeston's six-game winning streak against the Mules from 1991-96.
Poplar Bluff enters the game with a 4-4 record, its worst since 1998. But a 42-14 district opening victory against Perryville leaves the Mules tied with Cape Central for the district lead.
Sikeston stands at 5-2 with hopes of finishing the season strong, and possibly sneaking into the playoffs.
"It's a real big game for us because No. 1, they've beaten us five years in a row," said Sikeston head coach Charlie Vickery. "It's a conference game, it's a district game and it's one of our main rivals. We're shooting to be 7-2 and I think that would be an outstanding year for us. So I don't expect any kind of letdown."
The last time Sikeston won seven games was in 1998 when it finished 7-3.
The Bulldogs traditionally have played well against the Mules despite the succession of losses.
Poplar Bluff has been a heavy favorite the last two years, but the Bulldogs only lost 6-3 in 2000 and 8-6 last year, shocking scores for a team that averaged nearly 30 points per game the least two years.
"It comes down to the simple fact that you can throw records out of the mix because the last few years the Sikeston-Poplar Bluff game has come down to the wire," said first-year Poplar Bluff head coach Mike Dormady. "It's a big rivalry with a lot of tradition in the past. A lot of the old football players come around. I know it's an important game for both sides as far as tradition and what the past holds. A lot of people look forward to this football game."
The Mules enter the game as statistically the top passing team in the region.
Led by record-setting receiver Tony Webb and sophomore quarterback Mark Gum, the Mules have thrown 200 more times than most teams in the area.
Gum has completed more passes (109) than nine teams in the SEMO Conference have attempted the whole season.
Although he has been intercepted an area-high 16 times this year, he has also thrown for 1,643 yards with 10 touchdowns while completing 49 percent of his passes.
"He's had to go through a learning process like all sophomores, but I think he's improved each week and he's learning their offense," said Vickery. "I think down the road he's going to be an outstanding quarterback."
Gum's favorite target is Webb, who has 47 catches for 867 yards with six scores. His yardage surpassed Brent Little's school record.
"I think he's one that you've got to focus on," said Vickery of Webb. "Not only is he a good receiver, but he's a tremendous kick returner as well. If you don't cover him he's going to do a lot of damage."
Lucas Edington (22 catches, 235 yards), Steve Atteberry (15-200), Cheron Pearson (14-179) and Andrew Heuiser (9-137) all have over 100 yards receiving.
While the Mules do possess the area's top passing attack, Poplar Bluff's ground game statistically ranks among the worst in the area with just 357 yards the entire season.
Atteberry leads the team with 273 yards rushing on 80 attempts with three scores. Sophomore Todd Tinsley follows up with 118 yards on 34 carries.
With so little success on the ground, Vickery doesn't expect any surprises out of the Mules on Friday.
Just a lot of passes.
"They'll run the ball if you allow them to run it -- but I expect them to come out and put it up 30 to 35 times," said Vickery. "I think it's a huge challenge for our defense because this team will throw the ball more than anybody we've faced. We've really so far defended the pass pretty well, but we haven't seen an all-out passing team like Bluff usually is."
Sikeston has been carried this season by a stern defense led by junior linebacker Jacob Priday, who leads the area with 140 tackles, including two sacks and two interceptions.
Tori Rose follows up with 70 tackles.
"They do a great job defensively," said Dormady. "They did a pretty good job with Cape. Offensively they turned the ball over and that put them behind the 8-ball, but for the most part their defense kept them in the ballgame and gave them an opportunity."
But Sikeston's offense has struggled putting points on the board.
Quarterback Blake DeWitt has thrown for 559 yards, completing 35-of-86 passes with three scores and four interceptions.
He has rushed for 377 yards, second in the area among quarterbacks, while scoring seven touchdowns.
Senior tailback Lavar Morgan has rushed for 428 yards on 114 carries with four scores.
But despite Sikeston's offensive woes, Dormady thinks the Bulldogs are ready to explode at any point.
"I think they've got a lot of different weapons that they can go to," said Dormady. "The quarterback is definitely a good player and their tailback does some nice things in the open field. If they need to step back and throw it they can. Overall they do a nice job offensively."
The Mules have played one of the area's toughest schedules, with games against the likes of Class 6 power Liberty, Class 4 power Ozark and Blytheville (Ark.) in which the Mules lost by a combined score of 141-20.
But they have three come-from-behind wins this year against Dexter, Farmington and Francis Howell North.
And most importantly, they are 1-0 in district play. Vickery is hoping to keep his team's playoff hopes alive with a victory on Friday.
"We've still got something to shoot for," said Vickery. "There's a lot of teams that would like to be 7-2, including us."