The Bulldogs (8-4) will take on the Redskins (10-2) Friday night in the semifinals of the Class 4A state football playoffs. The winner advances to next week’s state championship game scheduled for an 11 a.m. kickoff on Dec. 2nd at the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Anniston has won the previous three meetings against Oneonta — its Region 6 foe — scoring a total of 109 points with an average margin of victory of 4.3 points.
“This is as good as it gets, to be
playing a team you’re familiar with,” Anniston coach Eddie Bullock said. “Now, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or we’ve got it in the cards. That’s just the way the playoff brackets fell. Things seemed to have fell in our direction. Pretty much like it’s destiny.”
The Bulldogs trailed in all three contests only to come back to win in thrilling fashion on each occasion. Anniston overcame a 17-point deficit in the third quarter at home against Oneonta back in Week 8. It trailed by four with a little more than two minutes to go when standout running back Troymaine Pope took a screen pass 72 yards to catapult his team to a 34-31 victory.
“They’ve got some pretty good offensive weapons,” Bullock said. “It’s taken us a little while to get started against them but we’ve known what we had to do, went in at halftime and made the adjustments.”
They wrapped up their first of two consecutive region titles with a 41-34 win against Oneonta in Week 8 a year ago, a game in which they fell behind 11 at the half. Pope, then a junior, loomed large in that game as well, rushing for 257 yards and five touchdowns on 31 carries. He didn’t play in Anniston’s second-round playoff victory against the Redskinslast year after being sidelined for the remainder of that season with a knee injury against Dora in the first round.
Pope will be healthy and raring to go Friday night.
The 5-foot-9, 193-pounder has rushed for 2,351 yards and 30 touchdowns on 211 carries. He’s also the Bulldogs’ leading receiver with 12 receptions for 422 yards and seven touchdowns and has three scores on returns for a total of 40 on the season.
Following the Bulldogs’ defeat of Oneonta back in mid-October, Bullock said Oneonta was “one of the best teams in 4A” and lauded the Redskins’ sound play, especially when it came to technique and keeping their assignments. He said his team will need a solid, consistent effort to come out victorious.
“That’s been a point of emphasis,” Bullock said. “We can’t get behind 17 and think the third time’s going to be the charm with the comebacks.”
Anniston quarterback Spencer Howard had a breakout performance in that game as well. The junior, in his first year as a starter, completed 6 of 12 passing attempts for 150 yards and also rushed for 30 yards.
“He’s stepped up big time,” Bullock said. “I told him, ‘This is Week 14. You’re not a junior anymore’.”
The Bulldogs’ defense has come along in the playoffs.
It shutout Cherokee County in Week 1, then limited Dora star running back Cody Staten to just 62 yards rushing in a 25-20 win on the road in the second round. Last week, the Bulldogs pitched their second shutout in a 14-0 win on the road against a Fayette County team which had averaged 41 points per game through the playoffs prior to its meeting with Anniston.
They’ll face another pass-happy bunch Friday.
Oneonta, which defeated 2010 state runner-up Deshler 48-20 in the quarterfinals, is led by senior quarterback Schyler Walker.
The 6-3, 195-pounder broke a school record with 36 touchdowns passes and has thrown only seven interceptions. He’s completed 167 of 293 attempts for 2,495 yards. All-state wide receiver Alvin Scott is his top-target. The speedy junior has hauled in 55 passes for 933 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s also returned two kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns. Walker will also look for Jalen Johnson, who has 52 receptions for 887 yards and 15 scores.
Tyler Smith is Oneonta’s leading rusher with 630 yards and nine touchdowns on 95 carries. Terrell McDaniel has 433 yards and nine touchdowns on 95 carries.
Anniston’s 1989 and 1994 teams are the only other squads in school history to reach the state semifinals. Both of them won state championships.
“After losing 19 seniors from last year’s team, no one expected us to go four rounds into the playoffs,” Bullock said. “I heard rumors that people were saying we’d win about three games and wouldn’t make the playoffs. After we made it past the third round where last year’s team went, I didn’t want to stop there. Now, we’re in the fourth round and we’re thinking, ‘Why not us?’.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.