The Alma Airedales went back to work this week in practice and returned to their roots.
Friday night, it was evident.
Alma’s defense stifled Van Buren’s big-play offense as the Airedales routed their Crawford County rival Van Buren, 36-7, for the fourth straight win in the series.
Alma (5-4, 2-4 7A/6A-Central) travels to Greenwood next week where the Airedales will try to earn the top seed from the conference in the Class 6A playoffs.
Van Buren (4-5, 2-4) travels to War Memorial Stadium to play Little Rock Catholic for the final berth in the Class 7A playoffs.
Friday, Alma’s defensive ring leader, Curtis Lloyd, intercepted four passes and led a punishing defensive performance by the Airedales and defensive coordinator Jason Reeves.
"We’ve been playing stout defense all year," Alma head coach Doug Loughridge said. "Coach Reeves live by the philosophy that you have to play great defense and you’ve got to hit and hit through the week. That shows on Friday. We got a little away from that during the middle of the season and that mentality because we were worried about injuries. These kids have picked it up the last two weeks. It showed tonight who’s the most physical team. It carried over."
Alma limited Van Buren’s big-play offense to just six plays of 10 yards or more through three quarters mostly with blanket coverage of the Pointers’ receivers.
"Alma did some good things, defensively," Van Buren head coach Brooks Coatney said. "We never got into a rhythm. We never could get anything going. They kept us in front of them and tackled our guys well."
Alma took a 14-0 lead within an 11-second span in the second quarter, in a first half that was otherwise very defensive oriented.
Landon Brigance ran two yards for a touchdown four plays into the second quarter, and Seth Linker added the placement for a 7-0 lead with 10:46 left in the half.
On the ensuing kickoff and just 11 seconds later, Jake Marrs picked up a fumble and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown. Linker’s extra point upped Alma’s lead to a lightning quick 14-0.
"I thought we did well in all three phases of the game," Loughridge said. "The kicking game was big with kickoffs and getting the return. It was great to win the kicking game."
Neither team managed much offense in the first half with Alma netting just 115 yards and Van Buren 114.
Alma, though, picked up its offense in the second half while the defense continued to dominate.
The Airedales pushed across a touchdown on the opening series of the second half when quarterback Evan Burris took the snap on a fake field goal, rolled left, and hit Thomas Hall for a 9-yard touchdown pass. Josh Parker took the long center snap out of the swinging gate formation and added the two-point conversion for a 22-0 cushion with 9:51 left in the third quarter.
Late in the third quarter, Alma added another score on consecutive passes by Burris of 16 to Hall, Marrs for 11 and finally a 12-yard touchdown pass to Heath Friddle with 17 seconds left. Christian Vasquez added the extra point for a 29-0 lead.
After Lloyd’s third interception, Alma invoked the mercy rule on a 9-yard scoring run by Noah Dotson with 9:23 left for a 36-0 cushion.
Van Buren added a late touchdown on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Barlow to Jaylyn Dye.
Alma finished with 320 yards with Burris throwing for 162 yards. Burris also punted four times for an average of 44.3 yards per boot, including a 63-yarder in the first half to help keep Van Buren backed up.
Barlow finished with 203 yards on 23 of 38 passing, but 82 of that came in the fourth quarter after the mercy rule.
"They’ve built their offense on trying to outscore people," Loughridge said. "Brooks is an offensive guy and does a great job. They score lots of points. I never felt safe. I didn’t feel safe with the mercy rule clock going because they can score any time. I’ve seen them close the gap just by having those athletes."