Once North Jackson exploded back onto the scene in Class 4A football this season, people who peeked ahead at the playoff bracket circled the Chiefs’ second-round matchup.
No. 5-ranked North Jackson would get either No. 3 Hokes Bluff or No. 2 Jacksonville, dependent upon the outcome of their Class 4A Region 5 game. Hokes Bluff lost that game by a mere two points, meaning North Jackson would host the Eagles in a top-five matchup that normally is reserved for later rounds of the playoffs.
The matchup has folks in both communities, as well as the state, eying Friday’s showdown between the highly-ranked state championship contenders.
“No doubt it’s a big-time game,” said North Jackson coach Mark Rose, whose team is 11-0 while Hokes Bluff is 10-1, “biggest one around here in a long time.”
Kickoff for the Class 4A second-round playoff game is set for 7 p.m. at R.D. Hicks Stadium in Stevenson.
The North Jackson-Hokes Bluff winner plays the No. 8-ranked Fayette County-Deshler winner in the Class 4A quarterfinals on Nov. 23. If North Jackson advances, it would host Fayette County but travel to Deshler.
It’s the third time in three seasons that the teams have meet in the postseason. Hokes Bluff defeated North Jackson 24-14 in a second-round matchup in 2016.
The rematch features two of the state’s top running backs and a pair of 2,000-plus yard rushers in North Jackson senior Lee Witherspoon and Hokes Bluff junior Darrian Meads.
Witherspoon has 2,759 rushing yards on just 131 carries (21.1 yards per carry) with a single-season state record 53 rushing touchdowns. He also owns the state’s single-season total touchdown record with 59 (53 rushing, three punt returns, one receiving, one kickoff return and one interception return). Witherspoon has eclipsed the 200-yard mark in eight games and the 300-yard mark in four games.
Meads has rushed for 2,351 yards on 238 carries (9.9 yards per carry) and 29 touchdowns, with seven 200-plus yard games this season, including a 401-yard outburst on 33 carries in a win over Cleburne County. Meads is a three-year starter, and played a role in Hokes Bluff’s 2016 win over the Chiefs with 131 yards and a touchdown.
“He looks a lot like he did back then, just a little bit bigger and stronger,” Rose said of Meads. “He’s a just a big physical back that runs, just a great football player.”
Hokes Bluff is averaging 39 points per game, with quarterback Ashton Gulledge adding to Meads’ contributions with 990 passing yards (49-of-88), 371 rushing yards (68 carries) and a combined 22 touchdowns (13 passing and nine rushing). Brayden Hill is the Eagles’ top receiving target with 21 catches for 468 yards and seven touchdowns while Carson Eubanks had 12 catches for 228 yards and two scores.
North Jackson counters with a defense that is allowing only 10.1 points per game and is led by linebacker Travis Woodall (152 tackles, 16 for a loss, two fumble recoveries, one interception), Deshawn Ware (90 tackles, 17 for a loss), Jody Moore (83 tackles, 17 for a loss, eight sacks), Tanner Woodall (81 tackles, 13 for a loss five sacks) and Cade Bellomy (55 tackles, two interceptions, fumble recovery).
“They’re going to run the football, but the quarterback can run and throw and he’s got two tall receivers he can throw to,” Rose said of the Eagles. “They make you defend the whole field.”
Defensively, Hokes Bluff is allowing only 12.5 points a game. Like North Jackson, most of Hokes Bluff’s offensive standouts also start on defense. Will Clemons leads the Eagles in tackles with 83 (9.5 tackles for a loss), Jackson Felding has 60 tackles and Austin Elder has 45 tackles (16.5 tackles for a loss) while Hill and Gulledge have recorded 40 and 34 tackles respectively and two interceptions apiece.
“They’re really aggressive on defense,” Rose said.
Against North Jackson, Hokes Bluff will try to slow down the state’s top scoring offense (60.4 points per game) and rushing attack that has accumulated 4,844 yards through 11 games. Along with Witherspoon’s school-record total, quarterback Tanner Woodall has 576 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 47 carries while running backs Korre Smith and Ware have respectively rushed for 562 yards and 11 touchdowns on 45 carries and 409 yards and eight scores on 32 carries.
Rose said his players are excited about the matchup with Hokes Bluff.
“It’s a big game, and our guys are excited. But we’ve got veteran senior leadership and, they’ve done a good job of making sure we’ve prepared like we’re supposed to,” Rose said. “You just have to keep that mindset until it’s time do go Friday night. These seniors, they were sophomores on that team in 2016. They know what to expect [from Hokes Bluff]. It’s going to be a war.”