At this time a year ago, Harrisburg was shooting for a postseason spot.
Now the Bulldogs have nothing to play for except pride when they host playoff-bound Carbondale on Friday night. It’s a position they certainly didn’t expect to be in a couple of months ago, but injuries and a tough schedule have combined to sink them to a 2-6 record.
“I’d argue with anyone that we’ve played the toughest schedule in Southern Illinois,” Harrisburg coach Gabe Angelly said before practice Thursday. “We’ve closing with Carbondale, and we’ve played Du Quoin, Boonville, Indiana and a traditional power in Mount Carmel.
“You combine that with the injuries we’ve had, it’s easy to have a record like this.”
Prior to the season opener, some looked at the Bulldogs as a sleeper in SIRR Ohio. They returned Isaac Crabb at quarterback, had a potential star at running back in Carl Russ and boasted one of the top defensive play-makers around in end Zach Gibbs, a guy who at his best can disrupt most offenses.
But Harrisburg never got out of the starting gate. It lost its first four games, three by at least three touchdowns. Then some of its key players started wearing civilian clothes on game night instead of pads.
Russ hasn’t played in more than a month, auguring a run of injuries at running back. Angelly said Thursday that the team had one remaining running back that actually started the season at the varsity level.
The injuries continued in last week’s 41-7 loss to Herrin. Jordan Dalton ran for 49 yards and a touchdown on just six carries, but his chance at a big game ended early due to concussion protocol. Receiver Easton Wallace got most of the carries after Dalton’s departure, compiling 86 total yards and having a touchdown called back for a penalty.
Coupled with a defense that has yielded 36.6 points per game, more than anyone in the conference, the ailments essentially kneecapped the Bulldogs’ season.
“It’s been a challenge,” Angelly said of the injuries. “We lost at West Frankfort and we also had a lot of injuries that night. We got it rolling a bit when we beat Massac County and Benton, but we just couldn’t put it together.”
And now the schedule-maker presents Harrisburg with the most athletic team it will face all year, and one with something for which to play. The Terriers (6-2) have a good chance of hosting a first round game in the Class 5A playoffs if they can take care of business.
Carbondale is coming off a 14-7 loss last week at Marion in a game where it couldn’t solve the Wildcats’ defense, aside from Korey Blythe’s first quarter rushing touchdown. Blythe picked up 116 yards on 22 carries, but quarterback Jakeba Burleigh experienced problems with Marion’s defense and the rain, completing only 5-of-26 passes for 74 yards.
Usually an accurate passer, Burleigh helped deny the Bulldogs a Class 4A playoff berth last year by hitting 15-of-23 attempts for 194 yards and a pair of scores in a 32-22 decision at Bleyer Field. Harrisburg led 22-14 at the half, but couldn’t cross midfield after intermission until its last possession, largely because of a pair of 15-yard penalties on the Terriers.
“We look back at last year and they took a playoff game away from us,” Angelly said. “We were sitting there with a nice lead at halftime and then their athletes came into play. We’re trying to use that as motivation.
“We know they’re playoff-bound, but we want to make it tougher on them and maybe repay them. That’s the type of things you use to motivate your kids.”