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Luke Godsey jukes out an Austin defender during the game between the Black Bears and Tigers last year. | Tom Chappell

Hartselle and Austin to meet in heated rivalry game

Caleb Suggs

Hartselle Enquirer

The game a lot of people have waited to see all season is finally approaching, as the Hartselle Tigers will travel to Ogle Stadium Friday night to take on the top-ranked Austin Black Bears.

Schedule overview:

This game couldn’t be more flip-flopped from last year if it tried. Last year, Hartselle was the undefeated team that was hosting a young Black Bears team with two losses for its homecoming. This year it’s Austin that is undefeated and hosting a young Hartselle team with two losses for its homecoming. Hartselle is coming off the team’s biggest win of the year, as the Tigers outlasted Hazel Green 15-14 thanks to an interception in the endzone on the last play of the game. Meanwhile, Austin is coming off the closest game of the season. The Black Bears led by just two points early in the fourth quarter, but an injury to Florence’s star running back deflated the Falcons, and Austin took advantage by scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to cruise to a 28-12 win.

Series history:

Hartselle holds the edge in this rivalry with a 29-20-1 record. Head coach Bob Godsey is 7-5 against the Black Bears while at Hartselle. However, the Black Bears have held the edge in this rivalry the past two years. In 2015,Hartselle led at halftime 24-21, but the Black Bears exploded in the second half with a 41-7 run to win 62-31. It turned out that was no fluke, as Austin rode that momentum all the way to the class 6A semi-finals, tearing through every team they faced until they lost a heartbreaker to top-ranked Clay Chalkville. Last year Austin outlasted Hartselle 24-16 in a physical game, and once again, the Black Bears used that as a catapult to go to the semi-finals again, where they lost to eventual state champions Ramsay.

Strengths and weaknesses:

Hartselle’s defense, which has held three teams without an offensive touchdown, is coming off probably their most impressive performance of the year against Hazel Green. The Tigers continued to stifle the Trojans all night as they made repeated stops, which included picking off Chase Starling three times. The offense is still growing up, but the Tigers have shown flashes of what they can be this season.

Austin has one of the state’s most prolific offenses to say the least. Led Mr. Football candidate and an Auburn commit in running back Asa Martin, the Black Bears are averaging 47 points per game. Meanwhile, Austin’s defense, led by SEC prospect Reddy Steward, isn’t too shabby either.

It’s going to be a battle of offense vs. defense in this game. In all fairness to Hartselle, the Black Bears probably haven’t faced a defense as good as theirs this year. Still, 47 points per game isn’t something that just any offense can average.

Keys to victory:

Hartselle was content with playing ball control, running clock and letting their defense win the game last week against Hazel Green. The Tigers attempted just two second half passes last week after attempting eight in the first half.

However, that most likely won’t be enough this week. The Tigers defense will need all the help it can get in this game. Hartselle, with the option offense, likes to run the ball a lot, but rushing yards are going to be hard to come by as Austin boasts a stellar run defense.

Success against the Black Bears will come through the air and on the perimeter. Hartselle also has to limit big plays, especially special teams plays. Austin has a knack for creating big plays on special teams, whether it is a blocked punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown, and that doesn’t bode well for Hartselle, which has had several special teams miscues this season.

The blueprint for beating Hartselle that Florence and Muscle Shoals used almost worked for Hazel Green. Florence and Muscle Shoals were able to force the Tigers into several mistakes and force them to come away with long drives with no points. Hartselle only had four first-half drives against Hazel Green, and two of those ended in turnovers. Meanwhile, Austin has made a living off forcing opponents into mistakes and playing strong in the redzone. Against Austin, both Hazel Green and Bob Jones had a combined five red zone trips in the first half that amounted to zero points.

Players to watch:

Jake Johnson: Hartselle’s biggest and most experienced offensive lineman has anchored the Tigers O-line all year at center. Johnson is going to have his hands full with the biggest defensive line that Hartselle has faced yet.

Colin Springer: Hartselle’s best defensive lineman is going to be lined up against Austin’s best offensive lineman in left tackle Marquice Robinson. This should make for some fun one-on-one matchups.

Kevin Penn: Highlighting yet another lineman just goes to show how important the battle in the trenches is going to be in this game. Austin has a stout run defense, and Penn leads that at nose tackle.

Tony Norman: Most people around here are familiar with Austin’s stellar running back duo of Asa Martin and Antonio Robinson. Most are also familiar with quarterback Paxton Montgomery, who is a very accurate QB despite not having many opportunities to throw this season. However, Tony Norman doesn’t have as much attention this season because of Austin’s tendency to run a lot. He is the Black Bears’ top receiver, but that’s not all people will see him play Friday. The versatile senior will also line up at tight-end, H-back and running back.

Overall:

It is no secret that Austin is the huge favorite in this game. The Black Bears are loaded with talent at almost every position and are the top-ranked team in class 6A. Still, Hartselle’s Godsey has been here before, and he knows a thing or two about beating teams when he’s outmatched – just go back to the 2011 5A state championship game for a reference.

Don’t be surprised if this one ends up being closer than most expect.

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