HARTSELLE — Closely watching game film, Deacon Aldridge searches for any flaws or weaknesses.
Every play was dissected. Everyone on the field was evaluated.
And, eventually, the Hartselle High quarterback had his conclusion:
Muscle Shoals’ ballyhooed defense doesn’t have many holes.
Aldridge isn’t alone in that assessment. Five other teams this season have gotten a lesson in physical education, taught by none other than the Trojans’ defense.
Big, fast and physical players fill the roster. Every yard an opposing offense gains is earned the hard way. Muscle Shoals’ defense always makes its presence known.
“They’re as good as advertised,” Hartselle coach Bob Godsey said. “But we’re embracing the challenge. When it comes down to it, we do all that we do to play in games like this.”
That seems to be the consensus at Hartselle.
The Class 5A No. 4 Tigers (4-1, 3-0 in Class 5A, Region 8) travel Friday to play top-ranked Muscle Shoals (5-0, 3-0) in what is one of the state’s most-anticipated games of the season.
That these two teams are fighting for Region 8 supremacy isn’t a surprise.
Hartselle and Muscle Shoals opened the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, but the Tigers dropped to No. 4 following a 21-14 upset to rival Class 6A Decatur, while the Trojans claimed the top spot for the first time since 1989.
Hype has been plentiful, especially with Muscle Shoals and its talented defense. Trojans defensive end Dee Liner, a 6-foot-4 and 274-pound Auburn commitment, is a five-star prospect, according to Rivals.com, and he is also considered the second-best defensive tackle prospect in the country.
Aldridge said the hype around Muscle Shoals’ defense is warranted.
“They are extremely fast and play with a reckless attitude,” Aldridge said. “From watching them on film, you can tell they make an offense be patient and don’t give up big chunks of yards. Compared to other defenses we’ve faced, they have a meaner demeanor about them. It’s going to be a huge challenge.”
Statistically, Muscle Shoals’ defense is the best in the state — in all six Alabama High School Athletic Association classifications. Through five games, the Trojans are giving up 1.8 points per game, have shut out three opponents and have given up just one touchdown.
Hartselle’s players are well aware of those numbers, and the Tigers have no qualms with being the underdog.
This is a new identity for the defending state champions — one the players have embraced.
“This is a game that nobody thinks we can win,” Aldridge said. “That’s OK. The last couple of years, we’ve always been the hunter, but this year the roles flipped and we were the hunted. We weren’t used to that, and I think we started feeling a little more pressure because of it, causing us to play not to lose instead of playing to win.
“But things are back to normal for us now. We’re the underdog. They are a very good football team. When you watch them on film, you don’t see many holes. For us to have a chance, we have to play smart and execute.”
Big games aren’t new to Hartselle. The 2012 season has been a grueling gauntlet packed full of talented,upset-minded teams.
During this stretch, Hartselle typically has given up a few pounds in the trenches to its opponents. The same can be said about overall team speed.
But, as usual, Hartselle has held its own.
The secret has been sound defense and a ball-control offense, even though uncharacteristic penalties and turnovers have crippled the Tigers at times.
Godsey said limiting those mistakes this week is crucial.
“We’ve been uncharacteristic at times,” Godsey said. “We’ve had all the yardage that we would need, but when you turn it over and have penalties, you’re not going to get points. We’ve got to do a better job of executing, especially this week.”
Godsey is right. Hartselle has moved the football with success — against some of the area’s best defenses, nonetheless.
A perfect example: Last week’s loss to Decatur. Aldridge passed for almost 200 yards, and the Tigers piled up more than 400 yards of total offense — while playing against a big, talented defense — but 150 yards in penalties limited Hartselle to just two touchdowns.
Aldridge said those experiences have helped Hartselle improve.
“Every game that we’ve played — you can go all the way back to the jamboree against Huntsville — seeing the big guys and Division I prospects that we’ve played against have made us a better football team,” he said. “From what we’ve seen, Muscle Shoals is one of the best teams that we’ve faced. It’s going to be a war — a battle that we’ll have to fight to the very end. But these are the games you love to play in.”
“By playing these tough games, you hope the players learn from these stretches,” the Tigers coach said. “I think we have improved each week, and I think we’re a better team than we were five weeks ago.”
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