Photo: Richey Miller, clearchoicephoto.com
No. 5 Fayetteville has rolled off five victories in a row to open the season, which is their best start since going 6-0 in 2006, but the Bulldogs face their toughest opponent thus far at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Gates Stadium against the No. 7 Heritage War Eagles.
Perry Escalante’s high-scoring squad is 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Class 7A-West after falling 41-21 last week at Har-Ber High.
“It’s early in conference play,” Fayetteville coach Daryl Patton said. “They are 1-1, but you don’t see records when you look at the film. You see a dangerous football team.”
Fayetteville (5-0, 2-0) vs. Rogers Heritage (3-2, 1-1)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11
Location: Gates Stadium, Rogers
Heritage ranks second to Har-Ber in the league in total offense, averaging 415 yards and 38 points per game. War Eagles quarterback Josh Qualls is the conference’s second-leading passer to Fayetteville’s Mitch Marshall.
“They’ve got a three-year starter at quarterback in Josh Qualls, who has seen everything,” Patton said. “He’s without a doubt the best quarterback in our conference and the best we’ve seen so far. He throws a really good ball and is a tough kid.”
Qualls has completed 88 of 142 throws with five interceptions for 1,056 yards and 12 touchdowns. His favorite target is Jeremy Spickes, who has caught 25 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns.
“Their receiver is a highlight film unto himself,” Patton said. “He makes big play after big play.”
The War Eagles are balanced, though, with running back Brandon Gates ranked as the 7A-West’s second-leading rusher behind Springdale’s Deandre Murray. Gates has 847 yards and 13 touchdowns on 113 carries.
“To go from Murray last week who was phenomenal to Brandon Gates this week, who is just as good is a real test for our defense,” Patton said. “He’s a big strong kid. We have our hands full with him.
“As an offensive unit they create in space and give you a lot of matchup issues that we are going to have to defend and deal with. They are very good, the best offense we’ve seen.”
Bulldog fullback/tight end Jase Rapert said Heritage’s athletic ability stands out on film and that he knows how tough defensive end Colby Isbell is from personal experience.
“They have a lot of talent all over the field. We can match up with them, but they are very good. They are the best team we’ve seen so far this year. They are really athletic and have a lot of experience.
“I blocked [Isbell] last year. He’s big, physical and athletic. We have to step it up a notch from previous weeks.”
Patton agreed that Isbell is a standout performer on a salty War Eagle defense.
“He’s a D-I athlete,” Patton said of Isbell. “He’s probably the best kid we’ve seen all year on film. Forrest Ford at linebacker plays down hill, just a tough player. They are solid on defense. They usually don’t give up the big plays. We just have a huge, huge challenge in front of us.”
The Bulldogs won’t back away from the challenge. Fayetteville has proven that by exceeding the expectations of many thus far with their spotless record.
“We’ll take it,” Patton said of being 5-0 at this juncture of the season. “This was an inexperienced, young team going into the year, and we knew that we would have some bumps in the road. But the kids have handled adversity pretty well and found a way to win each week. So far, we’ve gotten better each and every game, and we couldn’t be prouder or happier than where we are at right now.”
Har-Ber pillaged the War Eagles’ secondary last week. Expect Fayetteville to attempt to do the same with big receivers Jordan Dennis (21 receptions, 342 yards, 5 touchdowns) and C.J, O’Grady (18 Receptions, 402 yards and 6 touchdowns).
Marshall is playing better than anyone expected at quarterback, completing 60 percent of his passes with only one interception. With 1,126 yards and 13 touchdown passes, he’s on pace to throw for more than 2,200 yards in the regular season.
Patton has been encouraged by Fayetteville’s running game this season, but he is unsure if top rushers Brayden Cook and Terrell Tyson will be able to play on Friday because of knee injuries.