KINGDOM CITY - This may not be one of those powerful Tipton Cardinals football teams of recent memory, but that doesn't matter to Kevin O'Neal.
The first-year North Callaway head coach has his sole focus on how his squad regroups and reacts after a 35-12 loss at Class 4 Mexico in last week's season opener. The Thunderbirds will be seeking to give O'Neal his first career win when they travel to Tipton tonight. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
The Cardinals will also be trying to right themselves after being lambasted at Lexington 40-0 in their season opener. Tipton was known for a stretch of deep playoff runs in Class 1 before having its remarkable 68-game regular-season winning streak halted to open the 2013 season. The Cardinals were then jolted by the tragic death of player Chad Stover at the end of a 4-6 campaign.
O'Neal knows head coach Tony Braby will have Tipton prepared when North Callaway visits tonight. The Thunderbirds rallied for a 26-20 overtime victory against the Cardinals last year in Kingdom City.
"Going down to Tipton, you know that they're going to be well-coached," O'Neal said. "Coach Braby does a great job and he's going to get the most out of his kids.
"They're going to be ready to play when we go down there."
O'Neal explained North Callaway's most pressing need is to be precise within its own system and pay particular attention to details.
"The biggest thing we want to work on this week is getting good at what we do, and that's what we talked about with the kids," O'Neal said. "We're not changing a lot of things offensively, we're not changing a lot of things defensively - we're not putting in new plays.
"We're just going to work on executing and making sure we're getting better at what we do."
The Cardinals' offense is directed by quarterback Dylan Cooper, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior. Cooper will be joined in the backfield by senior running back Nigel Mertgen (5-11, 185) and junior running back Ryan Wood (5-8, 165).
O'Neal noticed a continued shift in Braby's offensive philosophy when he and his coaching staff studied game film from Tipton's loss to Lexington.
"We didn't see any jet sweeps, which is what they have done in the past," O'Neal said. "I think they were in shotgun the whole time, they didn't go under center at all. We've kind of seen them transition over to that in the past couple of years.
"... Coach Braby does a great job of putting kids in spots that they're going to be successful in. I think his quarterback is very good, one of the best quarterbacks I think we'll see. Their wingbacks are pretty good, also. ... They're athletic and if they get out on the perimeter, they're going to run for a while."
The Thunderbirds will need to tighten up a run defense that was exploited for 298 yards by Mexico. Four different Bulldogs ran for touchdowns, led by Karsten Ekern as he gained a game-high 166 yards and scored on runs of 6 and 73 yards.
O'Neal emphasized the North Callaway defense can't allow the Cardinals' skill players to get to the edge - and beyond.
"We have to attack them early on and get to them before they get into the open field," O'Neal said.
The Thunderbirds ended up with just 163 yards of total offense, including 124 rushing, against Mexico. Senior quarterback Cole Branson threw a pair of touchdown passes, but O'Neal pointed out he is still developing relationships with his young, inexperienced receivers.
Branson completed only 6-of-17 passes for 39 yards and was intercepted once. He was also North Callaway's leading rusher with 69 yards on 12 carries.
"Cole is still getting used to some of these receivers," O'Neal said. "They have to play together a little bit more and get that timing down with each other. We've been working on that all summer, but it's a little bit different when you get into a game situation.
"The pass protection, (Cole) is getting used to all of that and knowing where his escape lanes are. ... What I want to see from all of them (Branson and receivers) is just to get that timing down. This is another game to get used to playing with each other and being confident and executing what we need to do offensively."
O'Neal pointed out Tipton's 4-3 defense features Cooper, Mertgen and Wood at the linebacker positions.
"Those guys make plays," O'Neal said. "We have to make sure that we're blocking not only the first level but we're blocking the second level also."