There was a time not many months ago when the 2020 gridiron season was still very much in jeopardy. Players, coaches, administrators, and fans were unsure if the season would even start or be allowed to finish, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Statewide, a few dozen games have been cancelled as a precaution to keep the virus from spreading, but for the most part, the 2020 campaign has unfolded about as well as anyone could expect.
Despite the cancellation of two games, the Bulldogs have played a full schedule, fortunate enough to find quality opponents willing to fill the two vacancies on short notice. The only real casualty was their conference opener against Little Rock Parkview. The Patriots were unbeaten (3-0) at that time and would have given the Bulldogs an opportunity to measure themselves against one of the best teams in the 6A West.
Now, that game, if it ever happens, will have to wait until the post-season. But due to the cancellations, all 16 Class 6A teams in the state will qualify for the playoffs. With four weeks left in the regular season, there is still a league title to claim, along with team pride and seeding in the playoffs. Based on the results so far, the West is definitely stronger than the East. Depending on the structure of the post-season bracket, the semi-finals could feature three or four teams from the 6A West including Greenwood, Benton, Lake Hamilton, and/or Parkview.
In his weekly Saturday conversation with the Greenwood Dog Pound, GHS Head Coach Chris Young talked about last week’s 49-10 victory at Siloam Springs, this week’s home conference game against Russellville, and grudgingly took a look ahead at the final three league contests on the Bulldogs’ schedule against Benton, Van Buren, and Lake Hamilton.
As usual, the ever thoughtful Young began by praising the opposition, saying, “The last few years Siloam Springs has been a team on the rise. Both games they played us last year – but especially the second game in the playoffs – I think it was 7-6 at halftime. They’re a really physical football team and very well coached. They’ve had a new head coach the last couple of years and he has really turned that program around. They are very competitive in our league.
“They’ve always been a physical team,” he continued. “They’ll line up and run downhill at you, and are very good on defense. I think Coach [Brandon] Craig does a good job with those guys. They do a good job running the football, and defensively they’re always a challenge for us. They always scheme something up that causes us to adjust, and fortunately we were able to make [those] adjustments last night.
“After Arkansas had success rushing three [defenders] and dropping eight [against Mississippi State], we [thought] we were going to get that at some point,” explained Young. “That was a new wrinkle for them. But when [teams] do that to [us], [we’ve] got to be willing to run the football, and [we’ve] got to run it early and often.
“They had a three-man front and were dropping eight into coverage, and made us run the football. [But] we were patient enough and took what they gave us, and the [linemen] did a good job up front. Everybody likes it when [we] throw the ball around, but if they give [us] the opportunity to run, [we’ve] got to take advantage of that,” said the coach.
“We’re very happy to be [unbeaten],” said Young, when asked by broadcaster Tim Terry before the game to analyze the season at the halfway mark. “We’re very happy with how our kids have played. A lot of kids without [much] varsity experience are having good years for us. But there are also a lot of areas where we can improve. If I had to give a grade, it would probably be a B-plus. We’re happy where we are, but we know we’ve got a lot of areas [to] improve in, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
One of the key reasons the Bulldogs remain undefeated at 6-0 is the play of senior quarterback L.D. Richmond. Not only did the team have a new head coach this season, but they entered the 2020 campaign without an established returning quarterback to lead the offense. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the results and the season stats.
Richmond passed for 155 yards against the Panthers last Friday, completing 18 of 25 attempts, with three touchdowns and one interception. Not bad numbers, but still below his previous gaudy stats in the first four games he played, excluding the Choctaw (OK) contest, which he missed. So far this season he’s thrown for 1,296 yards and 12 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He has 109 completions in 142 attempts for a ratio of nearly 77%, which ain’t bad for someone who hasn’t played the position since he was a freshman.
“The young man is a player,” said his coach. “We thought he was going to be successful getting the ball to our [receivers], but he’s just done a better job than we imagined. That’s a reflection of the job Coach [Zach] Watson has done with him. They’ve spent a ton of time up here watching film, and he’s really well prepared. Give L.D. credit. He’s flat out making plays, not only getting the ball to the receivers and running backs, but when he gets pressure, he’s making plays on his own and taking care of the ball.
“[Siloam Springs] came out and rushed three and dropped everybody [else]. But I thought our offensive line did a good job blocking up front and our backs ran the ball hard. Offensively, we like to spread it out and throw it around, but we’ve got to be willing to run the football – to take what they give [us] – and that’s what they gave us tonight,” said Young after Friday’s win. He then proceeded to talk about the performance of senior running back Hunter Wilkinson.
“Hunter was banged up for a while, but he’s close to being 100%, which is huge for [us]. He’s such a weapon, not only running the ball, but catching [it] out of the backfield. We’re excited to have him back and healthy. Hunter’s getting better and better every week. We’re proud of him,” the coach added. Wilkinson had his best game of the season against the Panthers, carrying a whopping 30 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns for an average of five yards per tote.
“Cameron Krone is also back and available for the first time this year,” said Young before the game. “We’re excited about seeing him out there and what he means to our football team. He got hurt in practice early in the year. We could have played him a couple weeks ago, but wanted to give him a few more weeks to make sure he was good to go.”
In limited action, Krone was impressive, rushing just four times for 36 yards, but things didn’t end well for the junior. “He was a good change of pace for us,” continued Young. “He did a great job running the ball and didn’t slow us down a bit, and then he had the same injury occur. I hate it for him, and hopefully we’ll get him back soon. But I was really proud of his effort when he got in there.”
Injuries have been an all-to-common issue this season, and not just for the Bulldogs, who already have a couple of key senior starters out for the season and a few others still sidelined hoping to return later this fall. Wilkinson and fellow senior Jayden Jasna have also battled nagging injuries, but have managed to answer the bell for the most part.
“The next man up has got to be ready,” said Coach Young, “but this year has taken that to another level,” a reference to Covid-19. “Whether it’s on Friday night (varsity) or Monday night (junior varsity), we’re trying to develop those twos and even the threes so they are ready to play. We want to let everybody play as much as they can.”
Also missing last Friday was senior Braden Stein, the Bulldogs’ biggest (6-6, 290) and arguably most experienced player on the offensive line. While the coach declined to discuss the reason for his absence, he expects Stein to return soon. He was replaced by junior Corbin Webb, who played very well, a testament to the depth of the ‘Dogs O-line.
“Corbin did a great job,” said Young. “We moved Christian Brown to left tackle and put Corbin at right tackle, and those guys did a good job for us all night, I thought.” The offensive front has shown steady improvement this season under the guidance of new assistant coach Austin Moreton, a former lineman at Fort Smith Southside and Arkansas State.
On the other side of the ball, Young and the Bulldogs continue to hang their fortunes on the play of the GHS defense. “[Siloam Springs] came out with a good scheme early on, and had success running the ball, and we lost containment a few times and missed some tackles,” said Young. “You’ve got to give them credit. They had a good plan. But I was proud of our defensive staff. They got with our kids and made some adjustments quickly, and then our kids went out and made plays.
“But a little adversity isn’t a bad thing,” he continued. “It’s good to see how we’re going to react when we’re down. I think that’s the first time we’ve been [behind] all year. But our offense got the ball and said to the defense, ‘We gotcha,’ and that’s important. We’ve got to have each other’s back. I think that was a good experience for us that will pay off down the road.” Young then spoke about his defensive backfield.
“I think we’ve got a really good secondary,” he said. “Obviously, what Siloam Springs does kind of takes those guys out of the ballgame. They want to ground and pound and don’t do a lot of throwing, but [Jayden] Jasna’s interception to start the second series was huge. I think our secondary is going to be challenged this week. Russellville is completely different. They spread you out and throw it around. I look forward to [our] guys having some fun this week.
“Coach [Jeff] Weaver does a good job down there (Russellville),” said Young of his former colleague on the GHS staff. “Those guys are completely different from Siloam. They’re going to spread us out and try to get the ball to their playmakers in space. They’re not afraid to throw the ball downfield. Jeff does a good job coming up with some screens or trick plays, so he’s going to make us cover everybody.”
“They’ve got some really good players back, but they’ve got some young guys playing as well. They’re talented and they have some special athletes. It will be a challenge for us, offensively and defensively. They bring a lot of pressure. They like to blitz and move guys around and confuse [the opposition], so we’ve got to be prepared and make sure we take care of the football. They’re an athletic team with some skill kids that can run, and they are well-coached,” surmised Young.
“We’re 100% focused on Russellville,” added the coach when asked about the remaining conference schedule. “They played Benton within a touchdown and had a chance to beat Lake Hamilton on the last play of the game. In this league, everybody is pretty good. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night, so we’ve got to give our opponent 100% of our focus, and that’s what we’re going to do this week.”
Comparing scores is usually a fruitless activity, but it’s still an interesting pastime for many fans, whether or not it provides any real insight into the relative strength of league opponents. As mentioned, the hard luck Cyclones (1-5) lost to Benton (47-40) and to Lake Hamilton, 43-42. But they also fell to Fort Smith Southside (21-17), to Vilonia (28-23), and to Van Buren (42-21). Greenwood easily defeated Southside (42-3), but that’s their only common opponent so far.
In other conference results, Benton seems to have returned to its winning ways after a pair of early losses to Class 7A schools. The 4-2 Panthers own victories over Russellville (47-40), Siloam Springs (40-0), and last Friday defeated Little Rock Parkview, 30-20, after the Patriots returned from their self-imposed hiatus due to Covid-19 concerns.
Lake Hamilton remains unbeaten through five games, losing one contest with Parkview due to the pandemic. But the Wolves haven’t played the strongest schedule, and are winning only by an average of 12 points per game. Their defense is allowing just over 23 points per game while their offense is scoring a little over 35 points per contest. The Wolves host Siloam Springs this week before running the gauntlet against Van Buren, Benton, and Greenwood to end their season.
The Van Buren Pointers (3-3) also remain something of a mystery. Moving down from Class 7A, they’ve had some success early with wins over Springdale and Alma before losing 28-10 to Choctaw (OK) and 43-42 to Siloam Springs. They appeared to turn things around with a 42-21 win over Russellville, but then lost last Friday at Mountain Home, 49-37. Greenwood beat both Choctaw (23-12) and Mountain Home (40-7).
One thing is for certain, and that’s nothing is for certain, especially in 2020. The conference race is still wide open with four teams still very much in the hunt for the top seed in the playoffs and the league championship. Greenwood, Benton, and Lake Hamilton are all still unbeaten and will play one another over the season’s final three weeks.
Meanwhile, Parkview has only played one conference game, a loss to Benton, but still has an outside shot at the league crown if they win out against Van Buren, Russellville, Siloam Springs, and Mountain Home and the three teams ahead of them stumble down the stretch while playing each other. The Patriots cancelled their games against both Greenwood and Lake Hamilton, avoiding two of their toughest opponents in this crazy season. So stay tuned. It should be interesting.