The Opelika Bulldogs took care of business at home for the first two rounds of the Class 6A playoffs. Tonight, they head to the southwest corner of the state to try and keep their championship hopes alive.
Opelika (9-2, 7-0) will be on the road for a quarterfinals showdown with Saraland (10-2, 6-1). The matchup marks the third time the Bulldogs and Spartans have battled in the postseason, with Saraland having won the first two meetings by a combined 11 points.
The Bulldogs made short work of Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa in the second round by handing the Patriots a 28-0 loss, marking Opelika’s first playoff shutout since 2015. The Opelika defense totally stifled Hillcrest to the tune of 90 yards of offense and only seven seven rushing yards, while Opelika running back Eric Watts ran wild for 212 yards and three touchdowns.
Opelika head coach Erik Speakman commended Watts and the offensive line that opened up holes for the senior throughout the night. As for the defense, Speakman said their overwhelming performance was hopefully a sign of good things to come.
“It gives you a lot of confidence going into this game,” Speakman said. “There’s an old saying that defense travels, so when you go on the road if you can go down and keep playing good defense then sometimes it takes a little while for an offense to get going. You’ve got to play great defense to win games in the playoffs.”
The Bulldogs are on the cusp of their second straight semifinals appearance, something Speakman said was only possible due to the hard work that nobody sees. He pointed out how important his players’ efforts throughout the year have been, especially in a year during which having a season looked bleak in April and May. Along with the work of his team, Speakman complimented the leadership of the AHSAA and the various schools who allowed the players to have a season.
In order to keep that season going, Speakman’s players have to beat a Saraland team that is riding a five-game winning streak and boasts an offense that has scored 31 points or more in nine of the 10 games it has played.
For Speakman, this Spartans’ squad looks very similar to the ones the Bulldogs have battled in the past.
“They’re the typical Saraland team. They’re big, physical and very well-coached. They’re a lot like the teams we’ve seen on our schedule this year,” Speakman said. “They do a great job with really everything they do. The quarterback’s really good, and got a good running back. The run game is really good. They’re a lot like the teams you see in the third round: the defense is good and really good in the secondary.”
Speakman explained there are several Saraland players who the Bulldogs have to keep an eye on. He pointed to quarterback Karson Green, running back Omarion Crawford and wide receivers Jerone York and Jarel Williams as offensive weapons, and on defense he said linebackers Elijah Johnston and Corey Darrington along with defensive backs Terrente Hinton, Braylon Anderson and Willie Butler Jr.
Speakman knows the Bulldogs are in for a fight tonight, which makes the objectives so important for Opelika. He emphasized limiting the mistakes — especially turnovers — along with stopping the run and limiting explosive plays. He also stressed just gaining first downs given how strong both defenses are thanks to Opelika’s success and a Saraland defense that has only given up 9.6 points per game.
The Bulldogs will have to show up ready to play in order to hand the Spartans a rare home playoff loss. If they do, however, there’ll be plenty of reason to celebrate during Opelika’s long ride back to Lee County.
“It would be a lot for these seniors. This is their third straight trip to the third round. If we can pull this one off, then obviously they’d be in the semifinals for two consecutive years,” Speakman said. “The whole goal is just survive and advance and be playing again the following week. Whether you play great or whether you play good, the biggest thing is just play better than the other team on Friday night.”
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