By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
It was somewhat deceptive.
Take away a safety and a 49-yard pass play in the game’s first minute and a 47-yard return of a fumble and the points Hilldale gave up in a 36-30 victory against Stigler last week is cut in half.
Throw in 17 yards rushing on the night by the Stigler ground game and well, it’s not like Hilldale’s defense has fallen off the map after that impressive shutdown of Wagoner’s Lawrence Evitt, he of the 2,900-rushing yard junior season, in the final preseason scrimmage.
“We have to eliminate the big plays,” Hilldale head coach Chad Kirkhart said heading into Friday’s Red-White Rumble with Fort Gibson and battle for the Arkansas River rock that goes along with it.
Kirkhart’s counterpart at FGHS, James Singleton, has taken note of that unit.
“If you look at them on a roster, they’re not very big up front but they’re very athletic, strong, and play bigger than they are,” he said. “The linebackers are very active and they’re sound in the back. For us, the challenge is going to be for our receivers to stretch them vertically and up front, maintain blocks and try to run creases when we have a chance.
“They make it really hard to get outside and run it.”
Compounding that issue is Fort Gibson doesn’t have All-Phoenix MVP Jake Gandara anymore in their backfield. He’s at UCO. But they do have a big-playmaker quarterback in J.R. Singleton who likes to take off and run with it himself.
And some other things.
“They’ll try to lull you to sleep with their run game and then hit you with the big pass over the top,” said Hilldale safety Matt Bargsten, who had three interceptions last week. “Stigler didn’t have much success running against us but they did get us over the top a couple times.
“I think Fort Gibson can run the ball. The guys they have are stockier than Jake. That’s a tough loss but those guys are just as capable in their own way.”
Bargsten had three interceptions last week. Dakota Holmes was solid in his first start at one corner slot, Kirkhart noted, with a couple pass breakups and sitting on the run when necessary. Holmes, however, is the least experienced of the Hilldale defensive backs and knows he might be tested Friday.
“I’ll be on my toes for anything they throw at me,” he said.
All of the pass defenders should. Singleton hit running back Michel Richey on a 26-yard pass out in the flat and went 49 yards to wideout Will Rumbley for scores in the 42-33 win against Tahlequah in which they led 35-7 at one point before the half. Tight end McKenna Terrell had two catches for 81 yards.
“J.R. does a good job of mixing it up,” Kirkhart said. “Defensively, assignment football is what we’ve stressed all week.”
He also had 82 yards rushing,
“They’re really sound at what they do,” J.R. Singleton said about the Hilldale defense. “We’ve got to be able to find a way to take advantage of their ability to fly to the football.”
Fort Gibson’s passing game isn’t the only one that draws concern. The FGHS coach, concerned that his squad gave up passes of 80, 80 and 36 yards a week ago, knows his team must bear down Friday against Hilldale quarterback Chandler Puckett and his favorite wideout, Bradley Campbell.
“Puckett can hurt you with his feet and he’s got a much quicker release and a smoother, stronger motion than last year,” Singleton said. “Campbell didn’t catch a pass against us last year and he’s now their home run guy with great hands and deceptive speed.
“We had to chase an athletic quarterback around last week who hurt us. We’ve got to get a pass rush and play solid coverage on the back end.”