Mike Self FCT Sports Editor
RUSSELLVILLE - The Class 5A state championship game must be getting close–Maurice McCulloch is shifting into high gear.
McCulloch followed up his two-touchdown performance of a week ago with the game of his career on Friday, rushing for 261 yards and three touchdowns as top-ranked Russellville advanced to the Super Six for the third consecutive season with a 42-14 victory over Athens at Tiger Stadium.
The Golden Tigers (13-1) will face long-time nemesis Homewood in the 5A title game on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Hoover Met. The Patriots defeated Russellville in the state semifinals in 2000 and 2001 and in the championship game in 2002.
"I'm proud of our kids for getting back to Birmingham," said Russellville coach Perry Swindall, who has guided the Golden Tigers to a 63-9 record over the past five seasons. "I'm especially proud of our seniors. They set a goal of getting back to the championship game, and not many people gave them a chance to accomplish it. But they worked extremely hard and got it done."
One senior in particular shone brightest on Friday. McCulloch did his damage on just 17 carries, including touchdown runs of 15, 21 and 86 yards.
"Our offensive line did a great job of opening holes tonight," said McCulloch, whose previous career-high rushing total was 180 yards in the 5A championship game last season against Briarwood. "And our receivers and tight ends did a great job blocking downfield. I was able to cut back off those blocks and get into the open field."
McCulloch's big night was part of Russellville's best rushing performance of the season. The Golden Tigers piled up 405 rushing yards, including 291 in the second half. Freshman fullback Mike Abernathy finished the night with 115 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.
Meanwhile, junior quarterback Jeremy Helms had his quietest outing since the season-opening loss to Deshler, throwing for just 67 yards on 10-of-15 passing.
"You have to take what the defense gives you," Swindall said. "You can't come into a game saying, 'We're going to throw the ball,' or, 'We're going to run the ball,' and then just stick with it. You have to see what the defense is doing and adjust accordingly.
"Athens was dropping both of their safeties, something they didn't do the first time we played them [a 35-17 Russellville win in which Helms threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns]. They were determined not to give up anything deep, and that was probably the smart thing to do. But we were able to take advantage of that by having success in the running game. Maurice had some big runs. Our offensive line did a tremendous job, and our receivers and tight ends did a great job of blocking their safeties down field."
As was the case last week against Buckhorn, the Golden Tiger offense struggled early in the game. Russellville ran just nine plays and managed only 32 yards in the first quarter against Athens (8-6).
With the offense struggling to find its rhythm, defense and special teams play eventually swung field position and momentum in the Golden Tigers' favor.
Athens managed only 87 yards of offense and six first downs in the first half, and Russellville sacked Golden Eagle quarterback Rob Ezell four times for a total of 30 yards in losses.
Meanwhile, kicker Chris Swinney twice pinned Athens inside its own 5-yard line, once on a punt and once on a kickoff.
The Golden Tigers nearly dented the scoreboard early in the second quarter, but McCulloch fumbled at the goal line and Athens recovered in the end zone.
Ezell then threw an apparent 80-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Johnson, but the play was nullified because Ezell crossed the line of scrimmage before releasing the pass.
Athens was forced to punt, and McCulloch capped off a six-play, 55-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run to put the Golden Tigers on top 7-0 with 5:26 left in the second quarter.
"We came out kind of slow on offense, but we stuck with it and eventually got things going," McCulloch said. "Once we got rolling, we didn't stop."
Indeed. After Kory Suggs wrecked Athens' next drive by sacking Ezell for a 16-yard loss, McCulloch returned the ensuing punt 22 yards to the Golden Eagle 25-yard line. Helms scored from one yard out five plays later to make it 14-0 at the half.
Athens got its offense going in the third quarter, but the Golden Tigers scored on their first four possessions of the second half to keep the game out of reach.
"I told Coach Swindall after the game that this is his best offensive team yet," Athens coach Allen Creasy said. "They certainly showed it tonight. We did a good job against them in the first half, but they found some answers to what we were doing defensively and we couldn't find any answers for their offense. That's a tribute to their team and their coaching staff."
Russellville opened the third quarter with a seven-play, 60-yard scoring drive capped by McCulloch's 21-yard touchdown run.
Jeremie Slaughter answered with an 18-yard touchdown run to put Athens on the board, but the Golden Tigers came back with a 30-yard scoring run by Abernathy to make it 28-7.
Ezell, who finished 18-of-26 for 143 yards, threw a touchdown pass to get Athens within two scores, but a 39-yard run by McCulloch set up Abernathy's 5-yard touchdown run that made it 35-14.
Athens was driving deep in Russellville territory again when Suggs recovered a fumble at the Golden Tiger 14-yard line.
On the next snap, McCulloch spun off a tackle at the line of scrimmage and eluded several tacklers downfield on his 86-yard touchdown run that made it 42-14 with 7:11 remaining.
Slaughter finished with 71 yards on 13 carries.