In the past two years there wasn't a football pairing in the area that carried more weight than Jackson and Poplar Bluff.
Playing the final game of the regular season, the teams played winner-take-all stakes on the field, with SEMO Conference North and Class 5, District 1 titles on the table.
Jackson came into both games undefeated, facing stubborn Mule teams that were 6-3 (2000) and 8-1 (2001). The Mules won the first hand, handing Jackson its first loss two years ago. Jackson won the second hand last year, completing an undefeated regular season.
Tonight, when the two teams square off, much of the exciting backdrop will be missing. Classification changes removed the district stakes, and less than successful seasons and an earlier time frame have diminished the conference angle.
Poplar Bluff enters with a 3-3 record while visiting Jackson brings in a 1-5 mark. Both have taken their lumps with lopsided losses to new large-school additions to their schedules.
"It's kind of one of those deals where it feels like we both have gone from the penthouse to the outhouse," Jackson coach Carl Gross said. "Last year it was one we had marked on the calendar, and it's still marked because there's the opportunity to win a football game."
Poplar Bluff brings in a new look this year. Dropping from the ranks of Class 5, the Mules are now a Class 4 school with a new coach, Mike Dormady.
Like Jackson, the Mules lost their top weapons from last season. While the Indians lost star running back Mario Whitney and other key players, graduation removed Poplar Bluff receiver Brent Little and running back Bob Larkins.
While both teams have struggled, neither is void of weapons. Stuart McIntosh leads Jackson's running attack while quarterback Mark Gum and receiver Tony Webb fuel the Mules' passing attack.
Gum, a sophomore, has completed 50 percent of his passes and leads Southeast Missouri with 1,307 passing yards. Webb, questionable for the game with a sprained ankle, leads the region in receptions and yardage with 41 and 760, respectively.
Gross said the Mules throw about 60 percent of the time, and in a methodical manner.
"They screen you, dink you and then hit you deep," he said. "They give you every look in the world, try to get matchups and try to get Webb one-on-one because he's their playmaker."
As with all Missouri teams, Jackson will play its final game before the onset of district games next week.
"Our district this year is going to be a meat-grinder," Gross said. "What we have to do is worry about this one, and after that worry about them one at a time."
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