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Jackson football with new opportunity as playoffs begin

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.   The playoffs are a big challenge for any high school football team fortunate enough to reach them.

The challenge just happens to be a bit bigger for the Jackson Polar Bears as they get ready for their postseason opener against the Brunswick Blue Devils.

In a postseason where all teams in the state qualified due to the COVID-shortened regular season, starting the first round of the playoffs in Week 7 is, among other things, unusual for all involved.

"I think they're really huge up front ... both lines are big, their linebackers are big and they play sound, physical defense," Jackson head coach Tim Budd said of the Blue Devils.

Brunswick enters with a 4-2 record and two straight wins. Their only losses on the season have come to state powers Mentor and Euclid. With 84 points the last two weeks, the Blue Devils are rolling on offense and having the size to push teams around up front presents a massive hurdle for Jackson to clear on the road.

Jackson Milkanin of Jackson picks up yardage during their game against Hoover at Jackson on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

Jackson is the 11th seed in Division I, Region 1 and Brunswick is seeded sixth. The bitter pill to swallow for the Polar Bears is that their seeding would likely be much higher if not for three points – one each in 14-13 losses to Lake, Perry and Hoover.

Losing three games by one point in a normal season would be excruciating; losing three in a shortened six-game regular season, all by the same score, is a special level of heartbreak. In each of those losses, Jackson could point to self-inflicted wounds that led to its demise.

"All year long we've been hurt by our own mistakes," Budd said, repeating a refrain he's uttered multiple times this fall.

"When we play a clean game, we'll be fine."

Rebounding from a tough loss takes a lot from a team, but bouncing back from two straight losses in which a single point decided the outcome and having the second of those losses come to your arch rival is something beyond that normal degree of difficulty.

What may help this time around – or so  Budd and his staff hope – is that their next game is a playoff contest, raising the stakes and demanding that everyone put last week's loss to Hoover out of mind and focus squarely on the task in front of them.

"I told our players and coaches that right now we're 0-0, just like every other team that opted into playoffs," Budd said. "The timing is different than in past, but what happened in first six games is over and you can't go back and change it."

Even with the shortened regular season, most teams entering the playoffs in Week 7 have gotten five or six games in. The rust and sloppy play that prevailed in the first few weeks of the season have started to fade as players have gotten back into football shape and rhythm. Whether or not the level of play is where it is – or even close to where it usually is – entering the postseason is up for debate.

"It's just been so different. There's no point of comparison because we haven't been through this before," Budd said. "Our focus is on getting better in practice this week because they look like they're (Brunswick) playing well right now, but if not hurting ourselves, we'll give ourselves a chance to win."

That chance will hinge in large part on the running game, led by junior running back Brenden Craig. When the offense has found its big-play mojo, it's typically been because the running attack has set the table. As Budd noted, getting into third-and-long situations and needing to gain 10 or 11 yards to keep the chains moving is a recipe for failure for an offense. Running the ball well on first or second down and avoiding those tough third downs is always a focal point, but doing so against a big, physical Brunswick squad that can wear down opponents over the course of a game is even more vital.

While a win would help Jackson overcome its recent trend of first-round playoff exits and keep the Polar Bears alive in the postseason, don't look for them to look too far down the road. This season has hammered home the point of tending to every detail and finite point in a game and worrying about the present rather than the future.

Getting that elusive playoff win will likely come down to avoiding the self-inflicted wounds that have tripped the Polar Bears up this fall and being on-point in the smallest details of the game.