As Butler football coach Brian Hales entered the team’s locker room on April 9, the memory of his Bulldogs taking the field nearly five months earlier remained etched in his mind. In the 2011 Class 4AA Western Regional semifinal, the Bulldogs had blown a 20-point second-half lead to Greensboro Page and unceremoniously ended their bid for a third consecutive state championship.
But that day, as Hales positioned the countdown clock that adorns the training room wall to run off 131 days until the season-opener against Mallard Creek, he said he had a feeling 2012 was going to be special.
So far, it has gone according to plan, albeit with some twists and turns.
Butler has at least 11 players who’ll don college jerseys next season, including some who’ll take the field for national powerhouses Tennessee, Stanford, Michigan and Georgia. But aside from the talent, Hales knew he had an ace in the hole.
Stanford commit Peter Kalambayi said that he thought about the Page loss every day during the offseason. So did quarterback Riley Ferguson, a Tennessee recruit who’d thrown for 435 yards against Page but still felt he let his team down. And they weren’t alone, as many Bulldogs said the memory of that loss is still their biggest motivation to close out the season as undefeated state champions.
“That loss was terrible,” Ferguson said. “But it focused us. I don’t want to have that feeling again. That’s why we’re all focused on getting those (championship) rings.”
As Hales expected, when the season finally arrived and the clock in the Bulldogs’ locker room struck zero, they were ready and focused. Mallard Creek was one of two teams to beat Butler in 2011, Hales’ first season as head coach, and the Bulldogs had revenge on their minds as they throttled the Mavericks, 27-6, in the opener. They haven’t slowed down since, going a perfect 14-0 on the year.
Every Monday morning throughout the season, before focusing the clock to that week’s opponent on Tuesday, Hales has set the clock to Saturday, Dec. 1, at 11 a.m., which is when the Bulldogs will take on Fayetteville Jack Britt (13-2) at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill for the Class 4AA state championship.
It once seemed so far away, but now only days remain for Butler’s ultimate goal to come to fruition, and Hales has the Bulldogs as focused as ever.
“I’ve been saying all year that we can’t worry about the outside stuff and we have to take care of ourselves – that’s all we can control,” Hales said. “We have overcome some things but always have been focused on the big picture.”
The Bulldogs have easily advanced through the first four rounds of playoff games, amassing 156 points while allowing just 41. After again beating Mallard Creek, this time 27-0 last week in the state semifinals, Butler isn’t about to relax with the title game finally upon them.
“All of these games so far have gotten us here,” said senior linebacker Sean Wiggins. “But they really don’t matter anymore because they’re in the past. We have to focus on this week.”
Kalambayi added: “We haven’t done everything that we’ve set out to do. Not yet. We want those rings to close out the season. We got them as sophomores in (2010), but these will be ours. We have to finish what we started.”
Kalambayi and Wiggins have keyed the Bulldogs’ stingy defense, which allows a little more than seven points per game and has posted five shutouts. But the duo hasn’t been alone. Eight Bulldogs have contributed at least four sacks, five players have three or more interceptions, and 15 defenders have recorded more than 40 tackles this year.
“We all come to the ball,” said senior defensive back David Moore. “We don’t give up second chances, and wherever the ball is, we’re swarming to it. We’re focused on what we’ve been doing all year. Clock in and clock out, and just keep doing our job.”
Junior linebacker Isaac Stewart added: “Our job’s to keep the score low and help get the offense on the field so they can score points.”
While the defense has been stifling, the offense has been equally as impressive, averaging more than 45 points per game and scoring at least 25 in every contest.
Ferguson and a host of receivers – including Kam Billings, Cadarius Harrison, Michigan recruit Channing Stribling and Georgia commit Uriah LeMay – have led the scoring attack, but running back Josh Glisson has been the heart and soul of the offense, amassing more than 1,800 total yards and scoring 33 touchdowns in a balanced attack.
“(Glisson is) an animal,” Ferguson said. “He’s been coming up huge all year for us.”
After Glisson sprang Ferguson with a bone-shaking block in Butler’s 25-15 win over East Forsyth in the third round, Glisson relayed a sentiment many of the 2012 Bulldogs feel.
“I tried to take (the defender’s) head off,” Glisson said. “I didn’t want him to get to Riley because that’s my brother. I would’ve done (the same thing) for any Butler Bulldog in my life.
“I’ll always do that to protect my brother.”
But the Bulldogs also compete with one another – sort of like real brothers.
“We have a little back-and-forth thing with the offense to see who’s playing better,” Kalambayi said. “We won (against Mallard Creek), but every time we say they played terrible, they put up, like, 60 points, so they’ll probably do that this week.”
Jack Britt is a formidable opponent, having overcome a second-half deficit to defeat Garner, 14-8, in the semifinals last week. The Buccaneers also have won seven consecutive games.
The Bulldogs say they won’t overlook Britt, but added that they feel they’ll be holding the trophy at the end of the day if they stick to the fundamentals.
“We’re in a pretty good spot,” Hales said. “Our defense is a luxury and lets our offense be able to go out and make plays and not have to worry too much. Not a lot of teams have that kind of luxury. And (the defense) just keeps getting better and better.
“There are just so many guys that have contributed. We haven’t really had a totally healthy team since the (first) Mallard Creek game, but everyone has played their role and stepped up when they’ve needed to. It’s been fun to watch.”
After Hales addressed the team following its latest triumph over Mallard Creek, he asked if any of the players had anything to say. Wiggins stood up, reminding his team that it has no reason to celebrate until the clock hits zeroes in Kenan Stadium on Saturday.
When the bus pulls out of the Butler parking lot for the last time this season early on Saturday morning, the clock in the Bulldogs’ locker room will be ticking down to a matter of hours. But as the Bulldogs learned last year, winning the biggest game many of them have ever played isn’t a foregone conclusion.
“We know what we have to do,” Wiggins said. “It’s on us, and we can celebrate when the game’s over.”
If they win, the Bulldogs can celebrate for a while. But soon Hales will set the clock to Aug. 23, 2013, and the quest for another championship will begin anew.