Swindall: Johnson is much-improved

By Staff
Mike Self, FCT Sports Editor
When Russellville and J.O. Johnson met back in Week 4 of the regular season, the Golden Tigers scored two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter to escape Milton Frank Stadium with a 20-7 win that was much closer than the final score indicated.
During the postgame handshakes, one especially frustrated Johnson player verbalized his team's palpable desire for a rematch.
"We'll see them again," the player said to no one in particular. "We'll see them again."
Nine weeks later, their wish has come true.
The red-hot Jaguars (9-3) will visit Russellville (11-1) on Friday, with a berth in the Class 5A state semifinals on the line.
Golden Tiger coach Perry Swindall knows that beating Johnson a second time will be even more challenging than the first.
"It's always tough to beat somebody twice, but that's especially true with Johnson," said Swindall, who is one win shy of 100 for his Russellville career. "They've improved so much since the last time we played them. They were a little banged up at the running back position that night. They're so much more explosive on offense now."
The Jaguars are averaging nearly 40 points per game over the past three weeks, including last Friday's 43-14 rout of Cullman in the second round.
Running back DeAngelo Jones rushed for 145 of Johnson's 275 yards on the ground, and quarterback David Isabelle threw three first-half touchdown passes as the Jaguars steamrolled the Bearcats to set up Friday's much-anticipated rematch.
"We weren't at full strength the first time [against Russellville]," Isabelle told the Huntsville Times after the Cullman game. "We've got momentum going into this game, and we're at full strength. We plan on playing our best game of the year."
This time around, Russellville is the team dealing with key injuries. Already without starting defensive back Jacob Daniel, the Golden Tigers lost senior defensive lineman Casey Morgan-the team's leading tackler-to a season-ending knee injury in last week's 21-6 win over Mortimer Jordan.
"It's going to be tough to stop them," said Swindall, whose team has allowed only five touchdowns in its last five games. "Their quarterback is hard to defend, because he's completing more passes now and he's running more opportunistically. We're going to need some kids to really step up."
With the defense banged up, the burden may fall on Russellville's offense to out-score the Jaguars. For that to happen, the Golden Tigers will need much more balance on offense than they had in the first meeting with Johnson, when they managed a season-low six passing yards on seven attempts while rushing for 221 yards on 34 carries.
"We have to be able to throw the football," Swindall said. "When your passing game is struggling, it limits what you can do on offense. Pounding away at the other team is fine, but it's hard to score more than two or three touchdowns that way. You have to throw the ball to score quickly and score more often."
Junior quarterback Cory Trapp has completed 67 percent of his attempts for 2,112 yards and 27 touchdowns, but the passing game has disappeared altogether at times. Trapp struggled last week against Mortimer Jordan, completing 8-of-16 attempts for 118 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
The Golden Tigers leaned heavily on junior running back Mike Abernathy (164 yards on 22 carries) in the Week 4 win over Johnson. Abernathy has rushed for 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, while senior Kirby Nelson has added 672 yards on 115 carries.
Russellville is seeking its seventh straight trip to the state semifinals, while Johnson is in the third round for the first time in a decade. The Jaguars haven't made it to the semifinals since 1985.
The Golden Tigers beat Johnson in the first round of last year's playoffs.
"We'll have to play really well to have a chance," Swindall said. "Our kids have to realize that the way we've been playing just isn't good enough if we want to take things to the next level and win a state championship."