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Jackson, Bluff clash for district title
This game has been on the minds of Jackson's football players since last November.
This week, it was even on their chests.
With the date 11-02-01 embroidered or scrawled across some of the Indians' T-shirts, there was no hiding the magnitude of tonight's game in Jackson's locker room this week.
Having said that, the Mules have something on their chests, too ... a bull's-eye.
Jackson and Poplar Bluff will meet tonight at Jackson Stadium in Southeast Missouri's biggest game of the year. On the line is the SEMO North Conference championship and the Class 5A, District 1 title.
Jackson, upset by the Mules in last year's district championship game, is 9-0 and ranked sixth in the state. Poplar Bluff is 8-1 and perhaps underrated, having already knocked off one state-ranked opponent and playing competitively with another.
The winners will advance to the state playoffs. The losers will turn in their gear.
For high school football in this part of the state, it simply doesn't get much bigger than this.
"We're a little wired," said Jackson coach Carl Gross.
"It's like when there's two big bullies on the block," said Poplar Bluff coach Mark Barousse. "Sooner or later, they've got to fight. The district title has come down to Bluff or Jackson for several years now. I think it'll be a great high school football game."
Poplar Bluff was the only team last year to shut down Jackson tailback Mario Whitney. Whitney, who has verbally committed to the University of Missouri, had only 30 yards on 19 carries as the Mules claimed a 27-16 victory at home.
The Indians, heavily favored entering the game, appeared bewildered the entire night and the effort got worse as the game wore on.
Jackson has used that game as motivation for this entire season.
"We're more focused this year," said linebacker James Love. "We've had better concentration at practice. We're ready to go this year and we're not overlooking them at all."
Gross said last year's loss was a result of poor execution.
"One time it was one guy, the next play it would be somebody else," Gross said.
"I don't know if they took us lightly," Barousse said. "But we had a good football team. We did some things real well and our kids played awful hard."
Offensively, Jackson is more one-dimensional than Bluff.
But that one dimension is a very good one.
Whitney has slashed and dashed for 1,994 yards and 36 touchdowns this season. He is regarded by many recruiting services as one of the top running backs in the nation.
"Stopping him is one of our goals," Barousse said. "If you're going to beat them, you've got to stop Whitney, but you can't overlook everybody else. They've got two or three of the best linemen we've seen all year long. And the fullback, Brad Berry, can run."
Poplar Bluff spreads the wealth quite a bit between four or five players. The Mules have the top receiving tandem in the area with speedster Brent Little and the physical Tony Webb.
Little averages 23.5 yards per catch (33-777), while Webb gets 19.2 yards per grab (21-403).
Mules running back Bob Larkins has rushed for 1,102 yards and 10 touchdowns and quarterback Michael Crunk has thrown for 1,495 yards and has completed 51 percent of his passes.
"They spread you out all over the field," Gross said. "Little is their go-to guy. He has great speed so you'll play off him, then they'll throw it underneath and let him run for a big play. We'll have to win some one-on-one matchups and we'll have to get pressure on them and not give their quarterback all day to throw."