SIKESTON - The Sikeston Bulldogs and Jackson Indians have both gotten off to slow starts this season, but all that can change when the two meet tomorrow night for the SEMO Conference opener at Sikeston Public Schools Stadium at 7 p.m. in the 90th meeting between the rivals.
The Bulldogs (0-3) will be searching for their first victory against an Indians team that has had its own problems, namely in the turnover department.
Through three games, Jackson has turned the ball over 11 times, six of those being fumbles. Sikeston has 10 turnovers this year, including six fumbles of their own.
"It looks like to me we're going to be pretty even," said Jackson coach Carl Gross. "They've played two or three of the best teams in Southeast Missouri. I think they're much-improved from a year ago. They're going through the same thing we're going through. They'll get there ready to hit and they miss tackles and kids bounce off of them. It ought to be a pretty even matchup on Friday night."
Jackson's lone victory was a 38-18 win against Roosevelt in Week 2. They've lost to Hillcrest Academy of Jackson, Miss., 17-14, and last week's 35-14 defeat at the hands of Vianney, a private school out of St. Louis.
"They're still a good ballclub," said Sikeston coach Jerry Dement. "They're probably not as powerful as they were last year, but they'll be a handful for us."
Jackson has taken five of the last six matchups with the Bulldogs, including last year's 28-8 win in Jackson.
But this year's Indians team has looked anything but the powerhouse Jackson program that Gross has built the last 10 years.
"To be honest with you, we look like a pretty good freshman team," said Gross. "We knew we were going to be young coming into this, but we had no idea we were going to play like we are. We're eyeball deep in alligators right now. I'm not so sure that if we scrimmaged our eighth grade team, we might not be down but seven points in the fourth quarter."
The Indians' main weapon so far this season has been 5-11, 200-pound tailback Joel Penrod, who has 291 yards on 60 carries with five touchdowns. But he's been plagued by a case of fumble-fingers according to Gross.
"He runs hard, but Joel's fumbled the ball six times in three games," said Gross. "He does all those good things, but when you put the ball on the ground it doesn't mean much. He's disappointed in it too. I wish I had a magic wand that I could hit him with to get him to hang onto the football. When he gets hit he puts it on the ground."
Fullback Joel Wheeler has rushed for 131 yards this season.
Junior quarterback Rex Meyr has also struggled, completing 12-of-34 passes (35 percent) for 161 yards but with five interceptions.
"I hope we can play a football game where we don't turn the ball over five or six times," said Gross. "Unfortunately, we keep putting it on the ground or get it intercepted and it's disappointing. Right now, we're just not a very good football team."
Wide receivers Alex Austin (4-66) and Luke Crader (2-43, TD) have been the top targets.
Sikeston's offense hasn't been much better as senior fullback Acie Dixon has been the only consistent threat, rushing for 198 yards on 36 carries with two touchdowns.
Sikeston's tailback position has mustered just 92 yards on 35 carries this year.
Sophomore quarterback Chase Ferrell has shown steady improvement as he's completed 18-of-45 passes (40 percent) for 149 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions.
Senior wideout Robbie Howard leads the team with 10 receptions for 109 yards with a touchdown.
The Bulldog offense has gained just 464 total yards of offense after three games. By comparison, the team defense has allowed an average of 404 yards this year.
"We've been inconsistent offensively with the exception of Acie Dixon running inside," said Dement. "Obviously we've struggled big-time with run defense. So those are the two things we've tried to shore up this week. We as a coaching staff, and the kids more importantly, were embarrassed by our effort and physicality last week and that's something we've addressed this week. We went full pads on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and we're really banging around. We're trying to get a more aggressive attitude because we haven't been pleased with that."
The Bulldogs have allowed massive rushing totals to its three opponents this year -- the three teams averaged 324.7 rushing yards per game on eight yards per carry.
In an effort to try to stop the run more effectively, the team will go away from the 4-3 defensive alignment to a 4-4 set.
"We're trying to get more people up for run support," said Dement. "We've done a pretty good job of pass defense this year, which is where we struggled last year. Number one, we haven't tackled well in the open field, and number two we haven't been physical enough. We've over-emphasized that this week and we'll continue to do that until we get to the level we need to be. I'll be surprised if we don't play a more physical ballgame this week. We better, because that's Jackson's strength. We better get there in a hurry."
The Bulldogs are off to an 0-3 start in back-to-back seasons for just the second time in school history. The only other time it happened was in the 1973 and 1974 seasons.
Dement is hoping to snap the trend tomorrow night, which will also be homecoming for the Bulldogs.
"We're a very young team, we're starting six sophomores and sometimes at the 4A level it's hard to play that many young kids and get away with it," said Dement. "We're struggling, but I think down the road we'll be a better football team because of it.
"It's a conference game and it's our homecoming. We've had nice wonderful home crowds and we expect nothing different this week. We're going to play hard and represent ourselves as well as we can. We knew we were going to have some growing pains this year with as young as we are. That's just going to happen when you're young, but we look for effort, attitude and hustle and that will take care of a lot of things."