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story.lead_photo.caption Fulton linebacker Josh Reams pursues a Richmond ball carrier during last Saturday afternoon's game in Richmond. Photo by David Shawley/Special to the Fulton Sun

Through their non-conference slate and first third of their season, a common theme has occurred for the Fulton Hornets.

Alignment, assignment and lack of overall execution have been at the core of each of Fulton's three losses so far.

Each defeat has brought something to the surface, be it run defense, tackling or piling up penalties. With the page turning toward league play, Fulton coach Trey Barrow is hoping the Hornets have worked out the kinks.

That first test comes tonight when Fulton (0-3) hosts the Hannibal Pirates to begin North Central Missouri Conference play. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Robert E. Fisher Stadium.

Despite the score of last week's 42-7 defeat at Richmond, Barrow noticed signs his Hornets were shoring up some of those problem areas. After the Spartans opened play with a first-drive touchdown, sophomore quarterback Courtland Simmons delivered a touchdown pass on fourth down to junior James Walker.

The score was Fulton's first since the third quarter of the season opener at School of the Osage, and its first lead of the season. The Hornets seemed ready to build on that momentum with a subsequent onside kick recovery and a defensive three-and-out.

But an inability to sustain and close out offensive drives proved costly and allowed Richmond to build its lead out during the course of the contest. Back-to-back infractions on a drive pushing toward midfield quelled whatever spark Fulton had in the waning moments of the first quarter, setting the Spartans up near the 50-yard line on their next drive and leading to a short scoring drive that eventually gave them the lead for good.

"We go through spurts where we show great promise and effort," Barrow said. "We just need to be able to sustain it throughout the second quarter and halftime."

Part of Barrow's cause for optimism about the Hornets' future fortunes comes from having his entire first-string offensive line back together. Barrow specifically pointed out the return of junior Curtis Humphreys to the lineup last Saturday as a sign the Fulton offense was trending upward.

The line still needed to find its footing, however, evidenced by the Richmond's ability to disrupt and clog running lanes with its size and physicality.

"We did not execute our blocking scheme on a lot of the rollout passes," Barrow said. "And we had some wrong assignments because of the different fronts (Richmond rolled out)."

Hannibal (2-0) enters tonight fresh off a 41-21 home win against Fort Zumwalt West last week. The Pirates began the season by making a little bit of history, going into Jefferson City and knocking off the Jays 32-21 on Sept. 4 to secure their first win against Jefferson City in more than 60 years.

Hannibal will field its usual run-heavy option attack, triggered by an athletic quarterback and a couple of shifty backs. In this case, the Pirates' offense is led by quarterback Courtland Watson and paced in the backfield by running back Damien French.

But a couple of perimeter weapons in receivers Joey Worthington and Drake Dudley provide punch on the outside for Watson to use.

"They have some great athletes on their team," Barrow said. "Watching their film, they are very physical and very fast."

The precision with which Hannibal has traditionally operated on both offense and defense makes execution a must-have as the season moves to its middle portion.

"Hannibal looks to be a very good football team — the quarterback, running back and wide receivers all look to be playmakers," Barrow said. "We will need to execute our game plan and win the turnover battle against them."

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