SIKESTON - Heading into the 2004 football season, Poplar Bluff was considered far and away the team to beat.
Area pollsters voted the Mules the consensus No. 1 team in the area following a season in which they went 8-1 and returned most of their top talent.
But things haven't gone as expected in Poplar Bluff as the team has stumbled to a 2-6 season heading into Friday's 7 p.m. game at Sikeston.
Even with the Mules' unsightly record, they were considered the district favorite last week. But even that was derailed by a one-win Cape Central team, 27-7 at Houck Stadium.
Although preseason expectations weren't through the roof, it's been the same kind of season for the Sikeston Bulldogs, who stand at 2-6 as well.
"They're kind of like us, they've been inconsistent and they've had a frustrating season like we have," said Sikeston coach Jerry Dement.
Things went south quickly for the Mules as they started 0-4 with all coming in convincing fashion.
They rebounded to post back-to-back impressive wins against Dexter and Farmington, but have dropped two straight conference games to Jackson and Cape Central.
"Early on we had some injuries and we were playing a tough schedule," said Poplar Bluff coach Mike Dormady. "We got on a two-game win streak, got some people healthy, then Jackson came to town and physically dominated us and we haven't been able to put it together after that."
The Mules' injuries struck them to the core as standout running back Todd Tinsley missed a couple games. He has come back to rush for 490 yards on 78 carries and he leads the team with seven touchdowns.
"Tinsley at tailback has had an up and down year," said Dement. "He's struggled with some injuries and he's had some good and bad games. We need to focus primarily on Tinsley first. We've got to stop him."
Quarterback Mark Gum has thrown for 1,327 yards with eight touchdowns, but he has completed just 42 percent of his passes. His 216 attempts is by far the highest in the area and his 13 interceptions is tied for the most in the area.
Gum threw for more than 2,000 yards his sophomore year but his numbers have decreased as the Mules' running game has improved.
"He's thrown for a ton of yards in his career," said Dement. "He's the most constant player they have and when he gets in a groove he can be a very tough passer to defend. They also have a pretty good corps of receivers with speed all over the field on offense."
Poplar Bluff has four receivers that have more than 200 yards on the season -- tight end Kevin Chapin (22 catches, 395), fullback Kyle Luecke (17-276), wideout Whalen George (16-268) and wideout Nick Stith (17-233).
So with such an abundance of skill players, what has been the Mules' problem this year?
"They've got inexperience on the line and I think the teams that have had the most success against them has been able to control them up front," said Dement. "That's something we're going to try to exploit if possible. We're going to have to maintain some clock against them which we did not do last week."
One area Sikeston has been sub-par this season has been in the defensive secondary. Many teams have taken advantage of the weakness and have been able to break huge plays through the air.
It's something that Dement thinks has improved in the last three weeks, but they will get a serious test Friday night against the pass-heavy Mules.
"We have shored up our pass defense the last couple weeks," said Dement. About the last three weeks we've done a little better and haven't been near as susceptible to the big play. This is a team that can make big plays. If you relax in the secondary they can hit you deep."
Sikeston has gotten a big lift out of junior corner back Robbie Howard, who has a team-best four interceptions. Sikeston is coming off a 35-0 loss at West Plains to open district play, which snapped the Bulldogs' two-game winning streak.
The loss marked one of the Bulldogs' worst performances of the season which left the team searching for answers this week in practice.
"I think they've snapped back pretty good," said Dement. "They were upset with the way they played and they weren't happy with anything from last week. But we've had a good week of practice and the kids want to go out on a high note. Whether we win the district or not is out of our hands, but our kids want to try to close the season with two wins and get a good taste in their mouth."
Both Sikeston and Poplar Bluff are still alive in district play, but only by a thread. Both will need help from somebody else to knock off West Plains and Cape Central respectively.
"I think both teams are on level playing fields," said Dormady. "Record-wise both teams aren't where they want to be. It's a big game for both of us right now just for confidence."
Sikeston's top playmaker this season has been Felante Larry, who has 30 catches for 390 yards and leads the team with 932 all-purpose yards.
Running back Apollo Patterson leads the team in the ground with 425 yards on 110 carries as he battled injuries early in the season as well.
Quarterback Bryce Wibbenmeyer, in his first year as a starter, has struggled at times, completing 60-of-130 passes for 634 yards. He is tied with Gum for the most interceptions in the area with 13 to only three touchdowns.
Dormady says his staff hasn't scouted Sikeston as much as they've tried to correct things with their own team first.
"Right now our biggest enemy is ourselves," said Dormady. "We've got to fix the way we're playing right now. We're not as concerned with our opponent as we are ourselves. Our mindset is to go in and do what we do well. We've tried to gameplan teams in the past and we haven't had a lot of success. We're just going to try to do what we do well and hopefully put four quarters together."