(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON -- For the past five years the Sikeston Bulldogs have laid lopsided drubbings on the Charleston football team -- a program that hit rock bottom with two wins in three years prior to last season.
But the Bluejays, with a renewed attitude and an improved talent pool, were hoping to leave the past in the past and focus on the present.
On Friday night in the season opener at Sikeston Public Schools Stadium, Charleston showed that they are indeed a team to be taken serious as they pushed the Class 4 ninth-ranked Bulldogs to the wire before falling short, 27-14, in the 127th meeting between the two rivals.
Sikeston won the game, but there was not much celebration by the Bulldogs on the field afterwards as their victory was pockmarked full of critical mistakes that left the door open for the Bluejays to pull an upset.
"It's always big to win on Friday no matter how you do it," Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs said. "My hat's off to Charleston, they were in the game all the way up to the very end. It was just one of those things that every time we were in a position to go up another score and put it away a little bit, we'd make a mistake. They took advantage of our mistakes and did what they had to do."
The Bulldogs had five turnovers in the game -- four of which were fumbles. It's something that Gibbs knows will need to be corrected moving forward.
"We've got to work on our ball security and a lot of that's just a mindset, and sometimes that snowball gets rolling downhill and it kind of catches you a little bit," Gibbs said. "Whether we got tired, or our mechanics were bad, or whether we just weren't covering the ball, or whether they were putting good hits on us, those are things we will have to look at on the film. We've got to clean that up. You can't have five turnovers and drop a punt and give good field position and expect to win a lot of games."
But there were plenty of positives by the Bulldogs on Friday, most notably a very stingy defense, limiting the Bluejays to just 89 yards of total offense and only five first downs while also recovering a pair of fumbles.
"Our defense played well all night," Gibbs said. "We had some big hits and some big plays. The defense kept giving us the ball and then our offense would turn it back over to them."
The Bluejays entered the game with a reputation of operating almost exclusively out of the double-wing, double-tight offensive set. However, Charleston opened the game by spreading the Bulldog defense out.
"We struggled offensively and that's my fault," Blackman said. "We may have tried to do too much. That's a new scheme for us and the first time we've tried it in a game. At times we looked good doing it and other times we didn't. We're going to spread it out some and run some zone and tonight was the most I've ever ran out of the spread, but we'll still do what we do and hit it up the middle some."
Sikeston's offense, with several new faces, including Gibbs as the offensive play-caller, had mixed results.
The Bulldogs gained 301 yards of offense with 275 coming on the ground.
Rushing for 150 yards on 16 carries and three touchdowns, senior Kyland Gross wowed with his legs, as expected, but the first-year quarterback is still a work in progress as a passer.
"Kyland did okay, I wouldn't say he did great or anything," Gibbs said. "But he had a long run and he was very consistent in directing the offense. We've got to get a little bit better throwing the ball and part of that's on me. But overall the first night out I think he did about where I thought he'd be. I think as Kyland gets more comfortable in that position and we give him a little more room to operate, I think he'll get better and better."
Gross was 2-for-8 passing with 26 yards and one interception, although three of his incomplete passes connected with the intended target, but were dropped.
The Bulldogs also got a strong game out of junior fullback Chris Word, who rushed for 81 yards on 17 carries with a touchdown in the first half. However, he sprained his ankle late in the second quarter and did not see action in the second half.
Sikeston started the game in ominous fashion as they dropped the deep snap on a punt attempt on its opening drive, setting up Charleston with excellent field position at the Bulldog 41.
Three plays later, junior running back Robert Bogan bounced to the outside, ran through a pair of Bulldog defenders and reached the end zone from 28 yards out with 9:01 left in the first quarter to lead 6-0.
Sikeston responded on its ensuing possession with a 10-play, 55-yard drive capped by Word's 10-yard TD run on an option play from Gross.
Word also showed some power on the run, dragging Charleston defenders into the end zone for the score. Dustin Oakes' extra point gave the Bulldogs a 7-6 lead with 5:44 left in the first quarter.
Sikeston extended its lead to 13-6 in the second quarter as they took advantage of a short field at the 22 on a botched punt attempt by the Bluejays.
The Bulldogs reached the end zone in four plays as Gross was able to score from the 8-yard line with 9:04 left in the half.
Neither team was able to muster any offense the rest of the half.
In the third quarter, Gross showed just what he is capable of with an impressive 76-yard TD run, spinning off one Charleston defender and using a burst of speed to out-run the Bluejay secondary the rest of the way.
Reese Porter added the two-point conversion run to push the lead to 21-6 with 9:38 left in the period.
But just when it appeared Sikeston was ready to put the Bluejays away, the wheels nearly came off for the Bulldogs.
"We talked to our kids about how in past years when something went bad how Sikeston would just roll us in the next two or three plays and the game was over," Blackman said. "We preached about not letting that happen this year. Tonight a few bad things would happen, but we didn't let it bother us. We just kept fighting."
That extra fight by the Bluejays paid dividends as the Bulldogs nearly self-destructed with fumbles on three straight possessions, the last of which was returned for a 40-yard touchdown by Charleston's Sumner Foster.
Quarterback Mike Hull ran in the two-point conversion and all of a sudden it was a ballgame as Charleston now trailed 21-14 with 11:35 left in the game.
Sikeston responded with a nice drive into the red zone, but, yet, another turnover, this time an interception by Bogan, thwarted the Bulldogs' drive.
Charleston took possession at its own 20, but the drive quickly ended on downs, giving the Bulldogs good field position at the Bluejay 33.
Sikeston scored in four plays on Gross' 15-yard scamper to extend the lead to 27-14 to effectively seal the game with 3:12 left.
The Bulldogs got the victory, but Charleston's performance left an impression on Gibbs.
"I think that you look at Charleston and they're way improved over just a few short years ago -- obviously they've got it going in the right direction," Gibbs said. "They're a Class 2 football team that I think will do quite well for themselves if they can avoid injuries and keep playing as hard as they did tonight. The thing that impressed me was even when we had them down, boy they just kept coming, they kept coming, they kept coming. I think that's a testament and a tribute to not only the kids, but the work that the coaching staff has put in, not so much just this year, but in years previous to get them back to where they want to be. I think they're in for a really good year."
While the Bluejays lost the game, it was a far cry from beatings they had taken in recent years at the hands of the Bulldogs.
Blackman and his team were upbeat after the game and hope it is something to build on for the rest of the season.
"I'm really proud of our kids," he said. "Do I wish we didn't make some of the mistakes we did? You're darn right, but I can't fault the effort that our kids gave tonight. We can fix the mistakes. They were typical first game mistakes by both teams. I'm not concerned about that. I was proud of our defense. They had all that speed out there with their relay state champion team and we hung right with them for a good portion of the night."
Charleston will be on the road against next Friday as they take on Hayti.
Gibbs, whose team will travel to New Madrid County Central on Friday, will hope to clean up the errors in practice this week.
"Overall it's good to get a win, but we learn from our mistakes and we'll look at film this weekend and try to get one game better," he said.
C -- Robert Bogan 28 run (run failed), 9:01
S -- Chris Word 10 run (Dustin Oakes kick), 5:44
S -- Kyland Gross 8 run (kick failed), 9:04
S -- Gross 76 run (Reese Porter run), 9:38
C -- Sumner Foster 40 fumble return (Mike Hull run), 11:35
S -- Gross 15 run (run failed), 3:12
Rushing -- Charleston, Robert Bogan 15-32, Mike Hull 10-29, Mike Kellum 6-11, Rontavious Clark 4-7, Deiontrail Winston 1-2, Demontrail Clark 1-0, Team 1-(-17). Sikeston -- Kyland Gross 16-150, Chris Word 17-81, Earnest Fobbs 3-29, Nick Nichols 3-23, Reese Porter 3-16, Clay Porter 1-5, Team 4-(-28).
Passing -- Charleston, Mike Hull 5-11-0 25, Mike Kellum 0-2-0 0. Sikeston, Kyland Gross 2-8-1 26.
Receiving -- Charleston, Sumner Foster 3-10, Demontrail Clark 1-9, Robert Bogan 1-6. Sikeston -- Reese Porter 1-22, Chris Word 1-4.