By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
It’s easy to look at the scoring average of Joplin opponents — 17 points per game — and draw the conclusion that the Eagle defense has had its struggles this season
But take away games against Hillcrest and Rolla in September — the only two games that Joplin has allowed more than two touchdowns — factor in a key kickoff return for a score and a pair of late-game touchdowns allowed by Joplin’s backups, and it becomes a little more clear that the Eagles have been a bit salty on defense.
Joplin — winners of three straight — will need all the saltiness it can muster tonight when the high-scoring Lebanon Yellowjackets come to Junge Field for a 7 o’clock homecoming showdown.
A Joplin win would put the Eagles (4-2, 4-2 Ozark Conference) into a tie with Lebanon (5-1, 5-1). Hillcrest, the league’s other 5-1 team entering this week, knocked off league-leading Parkview 29-19 on Thursdaynight.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for our defense,” Joplin coach Chris Shields said. “We have to look at it as a great opportunity and I think our kids are seeing it that way.”
The Eagles have found a young weapon in sophomore Skylar Duley. The 6-foot-1, 165-pound defensive back had a pair of interceptions in a key 23-6 road win last week over Waynesville.
“That was pretty exciting,” Duley said. “Just the fact that he is letting me go out there as a sophomore is what really drives me to get better and better.
“It was an exciting night and I was glad to be able to help out.”
Duley and the rest of Joplin’s defense will likely be tested tonight against the Yellowjackets, who are averaging 42.5 points per game.
Quarterback Hayden Brackett and running backs Brock West (a senior) and Elza Evans (a sophomore) power a Yellowjacket offense that has scored fewer than 40 points just once — in a season-opening 28-12 win at Rolla.
“They have a lot of weapons. They have two tailbacks who could start for a lot of teams in the conference,” Shields said. “They have a sophomore kid and I was amazed at him and then I got a look at their senior and he is really good.
“And the quarterback, he’s a big kid and he throws a good ball. And they’ve got a lot of weapons outside and they’re huge up front.”
Shields estimated that Lebanon passes the ball on 43 percent of its snaps. Still, he said, the key will be stopping the running game.
“They throw the ball as much or more than anybody we’ve seen ... but you still have to stop the run first,” Shields said. “If you can do that, you can put a team into predictable passing situations. Then your defensive line can loosen up a little bit and get after the passer and your secondary can expect the pass.”