The bitter rivalry between the Commerce Tigers and the Jefferson Dragons from right down the road will reach a boiling point on Friday night when the teams collide in their 67th recorded meeting.
Although Commerce currently leads the all-time series 41-20-5, the Dragons have dominated in recent years, winning the last five contests.
Both team’s coaches have stressed the importance of this game as a rivalry, as well as a starting point to their seasons.
“It’s a huge rivalry game. It doesn’t really have any bearings on our region standings, but I’d have to say that it’s the biggest game on our schedule,” said Commerce head coach, Marvin Justice. “People will tell you that they all (games) mean the same, but I don’t think you could tell our players that.”
Justice has faced the Dragons only once as a head coach, in last year’s 41-14 loss at Memorial Stadium. Conversely, Jefferson head coach T. McFerrin has yet to lose to the Tigers in his three-year tenure with the Dragons.
Even with a 3-0 record, McFerrin doesn’t take the rivalry lightly.
“Obviously, it’s a great rivalry,” said McFerrin. “I know from our standpoint, it’s a rivalry of respect. We certainly respect them and what they’ve done over the years and how good a team they have this year. We certainly respect them and I hope they feel the same way about us.”
Justice would reciprocate the feeling.
“For three straight years now, they’ve (Jefferson) looked like the same football team,” said Justice. “They are very well coached and they are very disciplined.”
Commerce will look to its veteran defense to try and stop the Jefferson aerial attack, but the Tigers’ main concern is containing Jefferson quarterback Bryant Shireffs.
“Their quarterback is a good football player. He makes good decisions, throws well and runs well,” said Justice. “With that being said, the key to beating them (Jefferson) is containing Shireffs and slowing him down.”
Shireffs passed for over 1,800 yards with 19 touchdowns and only two interceptions in the 2011 season.
“A player that good – people say you have to shut down,” said Justice. “I’m not so sure you can shut down a player that good, but we have to slow him down, contain him and make him really work.”
Justice believes that other keys for a Tiger victory are keeping his offense on the field as well as winning the turnover battle.
While the Tiger defense will look to shut down the pass, the Dragon’s defense will likely have its hands full with a strong Commerce backfield and an ever-persistent rushing attack.
McFerrin believes that a discipline is the key to managing Commerce’s triple-option offense.
“You’ve got to be very disciplined on defense, and you’ve got to play your assignments,” said McFerrin. “You can’t just go running up in there. You’ve got to know which gap you’ve got and what responsibility you’ve got.”
McFerrin also noted the depth and experience in the Tiger camp.
“They’ve got a lot of starters back,” McFerrin said. “They’re experienced, the quarterback is a good runner and they’ve got three good runningbacks. They look like a good football team. We saw the scrimmage in person and they look even better on film.”
Friday night’s matchup will see two very different teams with very different playing styles, but two things that each has in common – they both respect the other and they both realize the magnitude of Friday night’s season opener.
“I’ve been a part of some really big rivalries over the past 40-something years and this is certainly a good one,” said McFerrin.
“It’s a big game, added Justice. “I’m excited about it. Our players are excited about it. Even the student body is excited about it.”
The rivalry is set to kick off Friday at 8:00 p.m. on Tiger field at Ray Lamb Stadium.