Muscle Shoals coach Scott Basden doesn’t listen to all the talk about Hartselle being weaker than it was a season ago.
He hopes his players haven’t either.
The Class 5A defending state champion Tigers (4-1) needed fourth-quarter comebacks the previous two weeks before seeing their 19-game winning streak snapped with a 21-14 loss to Class 6A Decatur last week.
Perception, it seems, has changed to top-ranked Muscle Shoals (5-0) playing the role of the favorite against a perceived underdog in No. 4 Hartselle (4-1) today at 7 p.m. at the Trojans’ J.F. Moore Stadium.
Basden won’t hear it.
“They’re the reigning state champs,” he said. “If we want to be one of the best teams in north Alabama, which is our goal, we have to go through them. If we want to win the region, we have to win this game or get some help down the road.”
Both teams are looking to improve to 4-0 in the region and take sole ownership of first place. A win would put Hartselle in the driver’s seat, as the Tigers already have a Week 4 win against 10th-ranked Cullman in region play.
The Tigers won that one only after scoring the deciding touchdown with 3 seconds left. In Week 3 against Athens (1-3), Hartselle trailed 8-7 through three quarters before scoring 16 fourth-quarter points.
The comebacks ended last week with a turnover on downs at the Decatur 24-yard line with 3 seconds left.
Special teams proved a sore spot for the Tigers, who allowed an 81-yard kickoff return for touchdown and had a field goal blocked and returned 34 yards to set up another Decatur touchdown. It’s an area Muscle Shoals and speedsters Jamarcus Nance and Tyler Jackson will look to exploit.
Still, there aren’t many weaknesses to this Hartselle team, Basden said.
“If anything, I think they’re more balanced offensively than last year,” he said. “Their quarterback, Deacon Aldridge is as good as any we’ve seen. They kind of go as the quarterback goes. He’s one of the better one’s I’ve ever seen.
“Defensively, they’ll get after you. They don’t make many mistakes. They’re not going to beat themselves.”
Muscle Shoals’ state-best scoring defense is allowing 1.8 points per game, but Hartselle’s isn’t bad either, averaging 11.7 points allowed a game.
The Trojans’ offensive line, which is jelling after returning two starters from 2011, will face a challenge in the Tigers' 3-3 stack defense.
“I don’t think anybody around here runs it expect for them, Cullman, Bob Jones and Decatur,” Basden said. “There are two kinds of blitzes coming every down. If you can pick it up, you can make some special things happen. But nobody has really been able to pick it up.”
Offensively, the Tigers actually out-gained Decatur, 364-206. Of those yards, Aldridge was responsible for 268. He finished 20-of-31 passing for 191 yards and had 77 yards rushing on 20 carries.
Then there’s running back Blake Slayton, who has rushed for 414 yards on 53 carries in three region games.
The Trojans defense has long looked forward to the challenge.
“Hartselle has always been in the back of our minds, but we tried to play one game at a time,” safety Jaleen Ricks said after last Friday’s 38-6 win against Dora. “We really invite the challenge. We’re always looking for good competition.”
Muscle Shoals players were not available for comment at practices this week and are not available to the media outside of post-game interviews, according to a policy instituted by the program earlier this season.
A win today could take a little pressure off a team that has been building toward this season, Basden’s fifth at Muscle Shoals.
“I’m glad it’s finally here,” Basden said. “We can quit talking about it and just go out and play it.”
Sports writer Jeff Edwards contributed to this report. Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @bappster on Twitter.