The confidence felt by the Hallsville Indians, especially on offense, became apparent last week.
After handing the ball off to senior running back Cooper Crane, quarterback Jake Ashburn enthusiastically threw both of his arms up in a touchdown gesture — before Crane even broke the second level of the defense. Every block was executed perfectly and Ashburn had already began to jog towards the end zone about 60 yards down the field, where his teammate was soon to be.
That touchdown was one of four in the first quarter last week for Hallsville, a barrage that visiting Hermann had no answer for. Blocks were crisp — allowing Crane to find open space — receivers were beating corners to their spots and getting open, and, mostly, Hallsville’s play-calling was one step ahead.
The Indians’ turnaround from last year’s 3-7 season to a shot at a district title against the Christian Eagles on Friday acts as a perfect example of what innovative and fundamentally-sound coaching can do for a football program.
First-year head coach Justin Conyers, who spent the last six seasons as Battle’s coach, brought in a few of his former staff members and recruited some more students to come try out for the team this season. But the biggest difference for the team is that it’s now ahead of the curve schematically.
In the college game, even programs like LSU and Alabama, who are traditionally ground-and-pound heavy teams looking to control the line of scrimmage, have shifted towards a new style of play centered around the run-pass-option (RPO).
The RPO is a newly popularized offensive system where a quarterback makes a decision to either hand the ball off or pull it back and throw downfield. It’s not the most complex offensive system, but given the number of different plays that could ensue from the same formation on the field, the defense has to account for multiple possibilities, think on its toes and react with authority.
Conyers saw the success of the system on Saturdays, particularly from Clemson and Alabama, and worked that into his coaching playbook. Now, with a quarterback in Ashburn who didn’t even play football last year to focus on baseball, Conyers is one win away from capping off the decade with a district championship for Hallsville. The Indians haven’t won multiple playoff games in a season since the start of the decade.
Hallsville players are confident heading into the game Friday, largely due to having Conyers in their corner guiding them and because they believe they’re finally playing their best football. The Indians have won five straight games, all in decisive fashion, since their last loss in early October.
That loss was a 35-0 shutout at the hands of undefeated Blair Oaks — which has gobbled up each and every opponent in its path for the last few years — and was only the second loss of the season for the Indians. The other? A close 28-26 heartbreaker on the road against now 11-0 Ava.
One thing is for sure. Hallsville doesn’t lose to teams that aren’t bringing something truly special to the table, and the Eagles will need to bring their best game Friday in order to avoid their fourth road loss of the season.
The Class 2 District 5 championship game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Hallsville.