(Photo by Chris Pobst, Staff)
SIKESTON -- Fourteen years ago, Poplar Bluff coach Mark Barousse was in his second season with the Mules.
His young squad was a prohibitive underdog against an undefeated Sikeston team in 1998, but the Mules left Sikeston Public Schools Stadium with a surprising 28-14 victory over the Bulldogs.
Barousse, now in the second season of his second stint at Poplar Bluff, is hoping history can repeat itself tomorrow night as the Mules will take on the Bulldogs at SPS Stadium at 7 p.m.
The Mules enter the game with a 2-2 record after lopsided defeats the past two weeks at the hands of conference rivals Cape Central (35-14) and Jackson (41-14).
The Bulldogs, after two unimpressive victories over Charleston and NMCC, have caught fire, dominating Dexter (47-7) and then Farmington (38-6) last week in the Edward Jones Dome to improve to 4-0 for the third time in four years.
Like they were in 1998, the Bulldogs come into the game ranked in the state -- currently ranked fourth in Class 4.
"We're kind of at a point in our season where the games get bigger and bigger and certainly this is one of those times," Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs said. "It's a conference game and we want to be in the money in the conference. It's a Class 5 school and it helps if you can beat schools bigger than you. We just have to be ready to go from whistle one and finish like we need to finish and take it from there."
The Bulldogs' defense has been the catalyst for the team this year, giving up just 27 points all season -- less than seven points per game. Sikeston forced six turnovers against Farmington last week, returning two for scores.
"Momentum's big," Gibbs said. "We talked about momentum from the Dexter game to the dome game and now we're talking this week about overcoming ourselves a little bit. We had a big game, but you can't rely on that, so you've got to kind of overcome yourself and understand you've got another big game coming up and hopefully that's what we'll do."
With a new offensive line, new backs and receivers, the Bulldogs' offense has been a work in progress, but has shown improvement each week.
Quarterback Kyland Gross has rushed for a team-leading 505 yards with six touchdowns. He's thrown for 265 yards with a pair of scores and two interceptions.
Barousse says containing Gross will be a major key for his defense.
"I think number one you've got to stop the quarterback," Barousse said. "He makes them go. He's a great athlete and a good football player and we've got to slow him down."
Junior running back Chris Word has rushed for 223 yards with five touchdowns in three games. Sophomore Marquez Newman follows up with 113 yards and two scores in his two games of action. He also had a kick return for a TD on the opening play in last week's dome game.
Poplar Bluff's defense is led by 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior linebacker T.J. Boner with 38 tackles, nine tackles for loss and three sacks.
Jacob Sliger, a 6-1, 225-pound defensive end follows up with 25 tackles with seven stops for loss. Alex Lewis has 23 tackles and three sacks.
The Mules have picked off four passes this season led by Jake Pulliam's two interceptions.
"Defensively they're really aggressive up front, which is going to present us some problems," Gibbs said. "They play basically a four-man front and slide backers to the wide side of the field. So we'll get a few different looks. They're very fundamentally sound and they're very aggressive."
After opening the season with a 33-0 rout of Union, the Mules have scored just 14 points in each of the last three games.
"We're not playing real good right now," Barousse said. "We haven't played well the last three weeks or so."
Barousse knows his offense will have a tough chore against the Bulldogs' stingy defense.
"We do some one-back and two-back stuff and we do a little bit of spread -- we like to run the football," Barousse said. "Their defense has a whole lot of great athletes so we will have to try to control the football. We'll just do whatever they give us. They've got a good defensive ballclub but we've faced two good defenses the past two weeks, so it won't be anything new this week."
The Mules are led on the ground by senior running back Cornelius Timothy (60 carries, 230 yards, two TDs), sophomore Bi Nguyen (29-149, 1 TD) and senior quarterback Kortez Ellis (50-145).
Ellis has been solid through the air as well, throwing for 370 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. He's completed 25 of his 50 pass attempts.
Senior wide receiver Kimbrayl Miller leads the team with eight receptions for 177 yards and four scores.
"They do things a little bit differently than they did last year," Gibbs said. "Offensively they're running the ball a little bit more. Their quarterback's a pretty good kid that throws a lot of deep seams towards the middle of the field and he'll take off and run every once in a while."
In the new format this season, every team is eligible for the playoffs. So while the Mules may have no shot at a conference title with two losses already, they can still get a favorable seed in the playoff format and vie for home-field advantage.
On Sikeston's end, in addition to still being alive in the conference race, beating a team in a higher classification means big points in the district standings.
It's just another one of the many reasons Gibbs is hoping his team is zeroed in on the Mules and nobody else.
"We just focus on that day and that week and I think our kids have done a good job of that," Gibbs said. "We've not talked about any coming opponents. We never have and we never will. You've just got to hope they're concentrating on this game and I hope they do."
Friday's game will mark the 90th in the long rivalry between the two schools. Sikeston holds a 53-32-4 lead in the all-time series, having won five straight over the Mules.
The rivalry has been played every year since 1938 save for a five-year hiatus following the 1946 game when Poplar Bluff had three players leave the game with broken bones. Sikeston was accused of rough play and fights broke out after the game. The rivalry was suspended until 1952.
Barousse says some of the animosity still burns today in those that were a part of the 1946 game.
"I think some of the older folks know about this rivalry but I don't think the kids know a whole lot about it unless we tell them and what this rivalry has been," Barousse said. "Every game counts towards the playoffs, but the Sikeston game definitely means a little more to some of the old timers."