Sep. 23—Football season is about facing challenges.
The Austin Black Bears have a big one tonight when the Gardendale Rockets pay a visit. The Rockets land at Austin Stadium with a 3-1 record. The loss was to powerhouse Calhoun out of Georgia, 31-30.
Gardendale quarterback Tyler Nelson directs the top scoring offense in Class 6A at 44.7 points a game. The defense is led by lineman Kelby Collins, a Florida commit, and defensive back Dallas Young, an Arkansas commit.
The last time Gardendale visited Morgan County, the Rockets left with a 35-28 victory over Hartselle in the first round of the state playoffs last November.
"Gardendale is big, athletic and physical. They will be a challenge," Austin head coach Jeremy Perkins said.
A challenge for his team is exactly what Perkins wants. In the past, Austin would be off the sixth week of the season. That would allow for some rest and healing going into the second half.
Perkins decided to change it up this season. The rest time will come with no game in the final week of the regular season. This week instead becomes a time to rev the motor up a notch or two for a collision with a team out of the Birmingham area. where Class 6A football is played at high level.
Austin's season has already been filled with challenges. The Black Bears opened with losses to rivals Hartselle, 45-17, and Decatur, 28-14. Hartselle and Decatur are a combined 10-0.
The losses to its two biggest rivals in the same season had not happened to Austin since 2014.
Next up was the start of the Class 7A, Region 4 schedule. The Black Bears beat Sparkman, 24-21, at home in overtime and followed that with road wins at Florence, 26-14, and Albertville, 47-10. The wins have Austin alone at the top of the region standings.
"We started making plays instead of missing on plays," Perkins said. "In the first two games, there was a small margin of error against two really good teams. We also didn't block and tackle very well."
The offense has progressed into more of a rushing attack this season. The Black Bears had 54 running plays against Sparkman.
Quarterback De'Air Young has thrown for 459 yards and four touchdowns, but he's also rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore running back Gavin Fuqua has rushed 39 times for 273 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Kenneth Joshua moved from linebacker to running back to give the offense a boost with five touchdown runs in Austin's last two games.
"We were certainly not happy with our first two games," senior offensive guard Jalen Verser said. "The offensive line had to play better and we have. It's really come down to better execution as a unit.
"We're excited about playing Gardendale. That game will help get us ready for the rest of our region schedule."
In the win over Florence, Austin emphasized getting off to a fast start. The Black Bears led 20-7 at halftime. Florence's touchdown came on a short drive after a turnover deep in Austin's end of the field.
The offense's improved play has also helped the Black Bears control the clock. It's helped keep the defense from being on the field for a majority of the plays.
Senior Druce Clarke leads Austin with 47 tackles. Close behind him are teammates Solomon Lyle with 44 and Mykael Burton with 40.
"I know we started off slow and some people may have been worried," Clarke said. "We learned more from those first two losses than we have from the three wins. Tiny mistakes can lead to big plays for the other team.
"The Sparkman game was really big. We didn't play our best, but we won and a win is a win. Our confidence level is high."
Keeping check on the Gardendale quarterback will be a challenge for the Austin defense. It could help Austin prepare for region matchups in October when Austin faces Bob Jones with quarterback Rayshawn Hardy and James Clemens with quarterback Giovanni Lopez.
"The best thing about being at the top of the region is that we control our destiny. Everybody is going to be chasing us," Clarke said. "No matter what happens against Gardendale, it's still going to be that way."
— firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2395. Twitter @DD_DavidElwell.