NEW MADRID - Still searching for their first victory, the Sikeston Bulldogs road doesn't get any easier on Friday night when they travel to take on the resurgent New Madrid County Central Eagles on homecoming night.
The Bulldogs showed improvement last week as they gave the No. 3 ranked Class 4 Farmington Knights all they wanted for a half, trailing 28-20. But in the end, Sikeston was sent home with its fifth straight loss.
The Eagles have turned their season around with three straight victories, including two against conference rivals Charleston and Caruthersville in thrilling finishes.
Both came down to failed two-point conversion attempts as the Eagle defense stepped up big.
"They've kind of caught fire here as of late," said Sikeston coach Jerry Dement. "They've got some momentum going and now they've won three in a row. They were kind of in the shape last year that we are this year. They have a lot of inexperience. Even though they're still fairly young, they do have some seniors in there."
And as if that wasn't enough, the NMCC got an extra victory added to its ledger as Farmington announced they had to forfeit the win against the Eagles in Week 1 due to using an ineligible player.
So the Eagles now stand at 4-1, a far cry from last year's 1-4 start en route to a 1-9 season.
NMCC's turnaround started in Week 3 when they defeated Fredericktown 47
Then they upset state-ranked Charleston 24-22 as they rallied from a 16-0 deficit. They squeaked by Caruthersville 30-29 last week.
"A lot of the same players we had last year have been through the ringer," said NMCC coach Arlen Pixley. "There comes a point in time where you play so many games and you start to get a feel for how the game is supposed to be played. Defensively we're getting off blocks a little better and a little quicker. Instead of giving up three or four yards a pop, we're starting to meet people at the line of scrimmage."
The Eagles made a change at the quarterback position in the Fredericktown game, installing sophomore Leslie Williams, and it has brought nothing but positive results.
"He's kind of our control-management system," said Pixley. "He does a nice job of moving the sticks. He's not necessarily someone we ask to be a quick-
strike guy, although he's proven in the last few weeks that he can do that. We've given him a little bit to chew on each week at a time. He's 3-0 as a starter and he doesn't make many mistakes at quarterback."
In his three starts, Williams has thrown for 181 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, completing 8-of-18 passes. But it's with his feet that he could be even more dangerous, rushing for 152 yards on 36 carries with four touchdowns.
"(Williams) seemed to spark them," said Dement. "He's more of a runner, although he can pass effectively. He's kind of a slippery guy. It's kind of like putting another running back in there and it gives them another running threat at quarterback that they didn't have. He's made them go the last couple weeks."
The Eagles also have a two-headed monster at running back in seniors Antonio McIntosh, who leads the team with 479 yards on 74 carries, and Printice Willis, with 434 yards on 56 carries.
McIntosh is 5-foot-11, 220 pounds and Willis is 6-2, 210.
The Eagles' top receiver has been junior Tommy Rowe, who has five catches for 193 yards. Four of those catches have gone for touchdowns.
Senior Laterrance Newsom has three catches for 120 yards.
Sikeston has had issues on both sides of the ball, starting a wealth of sophomores and other inexperienced players at key positions.
"It's the same thing they took advantage with us from last year and that's inexperience," said Pixley. "There's some places on defense where they're inexperienced and we're hoping to exploit those areas. There's a few places on their offensive line that we need to take advantage of. You've got to find matchups week to week and that's what we're looking for. Offensively we're just taking what defenses give us. I know you hear that week in and week out. We're looking for physical mismatches or whatever they're doing scheme-
The Bulldogs are led offensively by 5-7, 240-pound fullback Acie Dixon, who has rushed for 304 yards on 55 carries with three TDs. Tailback Michael Geralds, a 5-7, 160-pounder, follows up with 114 yards on 41 carries with a score.
Sophomore Chase Ferrell has completed 29-of-69 passes for 247 yards with one TD and four interceptions.
Senior Robbie Howard is the top target, catching 14 passes for 128 yards with a score.
"You've seen them run their offense week after week after week and they've improved," said Pixley. "They're a lot better team from Week 1 to Week 6. They're fixing to break through. Last year they were 'o-for' coming in and they came out and trounced us. Our kids know they've got a big chore on their hands and we've got a lot of work to do to win this ballgame."
But the Bulldog defense hasn't gotten the job done either, allowing an average of 35.8 points and 318 rushing yards per game -- numbers that will have to improve in addition to an offense that's turned the ball over 15 times this year.
"We're still inconsistent," said Dement. "For a half we played the No. 3 ranked team in 4A a good ballgame. And then they stepped it up and we couldn't answer it in the second half. If we can eliminate silly mistakes offensively, most notably turnovers, then we'll be all right. And we've got to tackle better on defense.
"We've got to maintain ball control on offense and keep it out of their hands. I think that would work to our advantage."
Sikeston has won 12 of the 17 meetings with NMCC, including three of the last four.