Last season, the Class AA state champion Jefferson Dragons had but one smudge on their near-perfect record. And that smudge was a 22-7 loss in their season opener against long time rival Commerce.
After losing to the Dragons for five straight seasons, the Tigers reignited a rivalry with nearly 70 years of Friday night matchups.
This year, both teams enter the “Battle for the River” in similar fashion. Both teams are sporting first-year head coaches and are returning plenty of veteran talent. Jefferson will seek vengeance, while Commerce will look to repeat its 2012 results in the 68th meeting of this storied rivalry on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Two very different offenses should provide an interesting matchup.
The Dragons will pit their balanced pro-style offense against Commerce’s traditional triple-option ground attack.
The Dragons, sporting a new play-caller in the huddle with a familiar last name, will look to use their athletic prowess in skill positions to make big plays downfield. Junior quarterback Evan Shirreffs hopes to spread the ball around to running backs Isaiah Blake and Tristen Jackson, and a receiving corps of T.J. Skelton, Donnie Hatfield, Chandler Thompson and Dalton Hill.
Conversely, the Tigers will look to returning quarterback Drew Whitfield to make correct reads and battle for the line of scrimmage on the ground. Whitfield will utilize a seasoned offensive line and a backfield of weapons. Senior running backs Jamir Walton and Chance McClure will work to keep the chains moving and the clock ticking as Commerce tries to pound its way downfield.
Commerce head coach Mike Brown knows that if the Tigers are to be successful, his defense must limit large gains.
“I think the biggest thing from a defensive perspective, is we can’t give up the big plays,” Brown said. “They are an explosive team. They’ve got some guys that can potentially turn a small gain into a touchdown if we allow it.”
Brown believes that if the Tigers can line up on offense and execute with discipline, Commerce will have no problem moving the ball.
“Offensively, we just have to execute,” said Brown. “We can’t beat ourselves. We can’t have any fumbles or any penalties. We have to be very disciplined in what we do – not only knowing our assignments, but carrying them out. That’s been our focus in practice.”
Meanwhile, Dragon head coach Ben Hall hopes his team can play smart and make reads to slow down the option attack.
“Defensively, we have to be fundamentally sound,” Hall said. “We have to contain the option game, veer offense and midline offense. We have to execute on every level. That offense really requires everyone to take care of their responsibilities.”
Hall said establishing a run game is imperative when facing a disciplined Commerce defense.
“Offensively, we have to establish the ground game and get the job done up front,” he said. “They have good defensive linemen and a really good linebacker and they are solid in the secondary. We have to establish our ground game first and build from there.”
Both coaches have reported a good last few weeks of practice and both squads are undoubtedly excited to get their seasons rolling.
“We are pumped up,” said Hall. “The kids are excited and I think that’s the case for every team going into their season opener. The kids are ready to hit someone other than each other and to get going in the right direction.”
“All in all, it’s been a good week so far,” added Brown. “Our biggest focus is improving every day. We’ve had really a workmanship attitude about it and we are working on things we have continued not to do very well and adding schemes for Friday night.”
Commerce and Jefferson have been playing football against each other since 1947, so it is not surprising that these two city schools that are separated by about 10 miles, have developed a passionate rivalry on the field and off.
Commerce leads the series 41-20-5, but the Dragons emerged the victors in five out of their last six meetings with the Tigers.
With so much history between the two teams, it is almost impossible for the players not to get caught up in the rivalry aspect of the game; however, Brown wants his Tiger squad to remained focused.
“There are a lot of distractions that can take your mind off of what you have to do, especially when you focus on the rivalry aspect and all the things that are going on for the fans and the certain traditions that have always happened between Commerce and Jefferson,” Brown said. “We want to focus on the task at hand, our responsibilities and the game plan. We want to go out there and play hard, but it’s an important game because it is the game we are playing this week.”
Meanwhile, the Dragons have retribution on their minds.
“The players realize that Commerce was the one,” Hall said when speaking of the 2012 Dragons’ sole loss. “14-1. They were the one. We have tried to use that to our advantage coming in the off-season. We had a state championship season, but there is always that “yeah…but.” That has really kept the kids motivated and we are trying to turn that one loss into a positive. The kids are excited, the community is excited – I’m sure both communities are excited. I think there’s going to be a great atmosphere.”