Lonoke fell to Southside Batesville, the 2-4A conference leader, last week, 28-14, but coach Taggart Moore said his team’s improvement was obvious.
“It’s just unreal the difference in a year,” said Moore, who took over as interim head coach just over a year ago. “It’s a process, but the kids are figuring out what I want out of them, and they’re starting to figure out we’re not going to expect anything else.
“We feel like we can make the playoffs.”
Lonoke is 2-4 overall and 1-2 in conference play heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. game at Helena-West Hel-ena Central (5-1, 2-1).
Southside Batesville is atop the league standings at 3-0. Stuttgart, Riverview, Helena-West Helena Cen-tral and Heber Springs are tied for second at 2-1. Lonoke stands sixth at 1-2 with CAC and Baptist Prep tied for seventh at 0-3.
The top five teams will reach the Class 4A state playoffs.
In conference play, Helena-West Helena has beaten Baptist Prep, 48-3; and Central Arkansas Christian, 50-13; and lost at Riverview, 35-26.
“They’re very talented,” Moore said of the Cougars. “They will be the most athletic team we’ve played so far. But we feel like there’s some things we can do against them. We feel like our offense may be a problem for them with some of the option stuff we do. On a lot of that, you have to be really disci-plined, and they rely on a lot of athleticism.
“But they can score, and they play great defense. They definitely pass the eye test.”
The Cougars were 5-6 last year, fifth in the conference. They lost in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs at Dardanelle, 45-23.
Helena-West Helena started 5-2 last year but lost its final four games. The Cougars were picked to fin-ish fifth again in 2017, according to Hooten’s Arkansas football’s preseason poll of league coaches.
Five starters return to run the Cougars’ Spread offense, with six back for their 3-2 defensive scheme.
Senior running back Terrance Calhoun rushed for 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior. Junior Armonie Calhoun moved to quarterback from receiver last year.
Helena-West Helena prevailed over the Jackrabbits last year, 47-19.
Keys for the Jackrabbits?
“We haven’t had a turnover in two weeks,” Moore said. “I’m very excited about that, and we’ve turned over some other teams. If we continue to do that, if we continue to run the ball well, we’re going to be able to win some games. We haven’t been penalized much. We play clean, so if we can just continue to do that, that will really help us.”
He said he was pleased with the Jackrabbits’ game plan last week against Southside.
‘We came out, took the ball and went right down the field on them,” Moore said.
The Jackrabbits stalled on downs at the Southerners’ 20 and fell behind 7-0, but they answered, capped by a short run by Xavier Hodge.
“We were feeling pretty good about it,” Moore said. “With about a minute to go in the half, they came back down to score on a questionable touchdown. The ball hit off the turf and bounced back in the kid’s hands, and we blocked the extra point, so at the half we still felt pretty comfortable.”
Southside went up 21-7 in the third quarter before Lonoke struck again on a 35-yard pass from Daniel Seigrist to Braidon Bryant.
“It was back and forth, and we made them punt and got the ball back,” Moore said. “We thought we had a chance to tie the game, but we turned it over on downs and then they scored late.
“But we were really excited, considering they’re the No. 1 team in the conference. Their coach told me afterward, ‘You gave us everything we wanted tonight and more.’ I was really pleased by how much we’ve improved. A year ago, that was not the case.”
Lonoke earned 338 yards of offense, including 50 rushes for 286 yards and 52 yards passing on a 4-of-6 performance by Seigrist. Bryant caught two passes for 37 yards, including the score. Hodge was back to full strength after an injury, leading the Jackrabbit rushing attack with 135 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
Defensively, Tallon Swint led Lonoke with nine tackles and a sack. Michael Hodges added eight tackles; Jackson Ward had seven. Dalton Smith recovered a fumble.
Moore praised the play of junior Julian Lopez at right guard.
“He has really come on,” the coach said. “Braidon Bryant’s unselfishness is continuing to get better. He blocked so well the other night. Most of the yards Xavier was able to pick up were because Braidon was there. That’s the unselfishness I want.
“We really moved the ball well, but we couldn’t get over that hump. We turned the ball over a couple of times on downs on their 20 and that hurt us, but as we go and continue to establish this running game we’ve hung our hat on, I think it’s going to win us a lot of football games.”