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Football: Class 2, District 5 championship

Football: Class 2, District 5 championship

Bulldogs try to figure out method to rein in No. 1 Falcons' offense

November 9th, 2018 by Ryan Boland in Sports Prep
South Callaway senior defensive lineman Dustin Loucks tries to drag down North Callaway senior wide receiver Chet Cunningham from behind in the Bulldogs' 14-6 victory over the Thunderbirds in the Class 2, District 5 semifinals Nov. 2 in Mokane. No. 2 seed South Callaway (10-1) travels to Wardsville tonight to face top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Blair Oaks (11-0) for the District 5 championship.

South Callaway senior defensive lineman Dustin Loucks tries...

Photo by Shelly Sconce/Special to the Fulton Sun

MOKANE — The deeper he dove into examining the Blair Oaks Falcons' electric offense, Zack Hess grew more comfortable with concocting a defensive game plan he hopes will create mayhem for the machine.

South Callaway's head coach — who doubles as the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator — also understands the stress that symbolizes that mission for his squad.

No. 2 seed South Callaway (10-1) travels to Wardsville tonight with the immense task of trying to take down top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Blair Oaks (11-0) in the Class 2, District 5 championship. Kickoff is 7 p.m.

The Falcons are averaging an astounding 53.7 points per game entering tonight's title matchup. Blair Oaks — which has piled up 70 points apiece in its two District 5 blowouts — has not scored less than 56 points in each of its last six games.

"You just watch so much film, and after you watch the film and you get a better handle on it, you feel a little better about it," Hess said Wednesday morning. "You put together a defense that you think would match up with what their tendencies are, formationally — that's kind of how we do our defense.

"At the same time, it's kind of a catch-22 because you feel good about defending one thing but they have the ability in their offense to do something else. That's what's predicated upon — they have answers to your thing. They're great answers and they're well-coached with how they do that."

Hess explained that the Falcons' primary offense relies heavily on zone reads and run-pass options, but that Blair Oaks will also operate out of a split-back veer formation.

"They're very efficient, very precise," Hess said. "They don't make a lot of mistakes and they've got playmakers all over the field that just make it look easy."

The Falcons' surplus of skill starts at quarterback with senior Nolan Hair, a remarkable dual threat. Hair has completed an extraordinary 73 percent of his passes (120-of-164) this season for 2,586 yards, 36 touchdowns and — get this! — no interceptions.

In his last five games, Hair has thrown just two incompletions in going 51-of-53 for 1,157 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Hair is also a handful for opposing defenses when he tucks the ball and takes off. He is third on the team with 464 yards rushing (5.5 per carry) and 11 scores.

"The first thing that jumps out to me is just what a great athlete he is — he's not just a very good quarterback," Hess said. "He's a great athlete. He's not afraid to pull the ball and run with it, he's a very good runner when he does.

"I think the first thing that he wants to do is throw the ball. He's got a cannon for an arm and he's very accurate. It seems like he makes the right reads all the time and that's just being well-coached."

Hair's top target is senior wide receiver Benner Thomas, who leads the Falcons with 40 catches for 1,084 yards (27.1 average) and 19 touchdowns. Senior slot receiver Braydan Pritchett is second with 36 receptions for 643 yards (17.9 average) and seven scores, while senior wide receiver Marcus Edler is third with 22 catches for 585 yards (26.5 average) and six touchdowns.

"They just look good all over the field," Hess said. "(No.) 80 (Thomas) and 88 (Edler) are both your typical wide receiver-type guys — they're good route-runners, they're good blockers downfield, they're the guys that are going to sneak through on the vertical routes."

South Callaway's defense has surrendered an average of just 120.5 yards through the air this season, but Blair Oaks' prolific passing attack is a different beast than any the Bulldogs have encountered. Senior Peyton Leeper has a team-high six interceptions at his strong safety position, while senior cornerback Dylan Paschang and junior free safety Devin Borghardt both have four.

"It's going to be tricky for us because (the Falcons) do such a great job with their perimeter-screen game, their bubbles," Hess said. "If our corners, our safeties get sucked in trying to come up to defend that, that's when they go right by you.

"The key is how disciplined can we play in the secondary with our perimeter pass defense, our perimeter run defense and then also being able to defend vertically as well."

Blair Oaks' running game is fueled by a triumvirate. In addition to Hair, junior running back Riley Lentz has gained a team-high 736 yards (6.2 average) and scored 12 times. Pritchett is next with 588 yards rushing (10.0 per carry) and guides the Falcons with 15 touchdowns.

"(Lentz) is fast and he is physical — he's not worried about going around you, he's going to run through you and he's going to let you know about it," Hess said. "That's what good running backs do.

"(Pritchett) is more of a hybrid-type of guy because he'll play running back, but he also will widen out. He's a good receiver, too — he runs a lot of bubbles, a lot of short, intermediate stuff, but he's fast enough to run vertical as well. Good hands."

Hess emphasized that his defensive unit — which is giving up just 139.7 yards per game on the ground — can't allow explosive plays by Blair Oaks that result in points.

"Those would be killers," Hess said. "I just think tackling in space is going to be huge for us. That's what their offense does so well — it puts the defense in positions where they have to match up and they have to be able to tackle in the open field.

"If you miss one tackle, then their athletes are making huge plays. That's what they've done all season."

If the Bulldogs have any expectations for putting a squeeze on the potent Falcons, their own offense — which is tallying 35.6 points per game — will need to slow the tempo with its running game and stretch possessions.

South Callaway offers up its own dazzling dual threat in Leeper at quarterback. He is 79-of-155 passing (51 percent) on the season for 1,363 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Leeper also directs the Bulldogs with 923 yards rushing (7.0 average) and 19 scores.

Senior running back Bradyn Belcher is second with 639 yards (4.9 per carry) and six touchdowns. Belcher was expected to miss last week's District 5 semifinal against North Callaway with a high ankle sprain, but was cleared late Friday afternoon and responded with 56 yards on 19 carries in a 14-6 win.

Junior tight end Caleb Hall tops South Callaway with 35 catches for 461 yards (13.2 average) and two touchdowns. Paschang follows with 22 receptions for 455 yards (20.7 per catch) and a team-high eight scores at his wide receiver position.

"The obvious key is we've got to stay on the field," Hess said. "If their offense does not have the ball, then we're in good shape in terms of that.

"Time of possession is going to be an important thing and then the other obvious thing is we can't turn the ball over. We've got to limit possessions that they have and hopefully gain a few possessions, and maybe get a break or two."

While Blair Oaks has been enormously bountiful on offense, it has been equally stingy on the defensive side in allowing a meager 9 points per game. Junior linebacker Sam Luebbering sparks the Falcons with 92 tackles and eight sacks, both team highs.

Senior defensive lineman Nolan Atnip has posted 68 tackles and three sacks, while sophomore defensive lineman Rylee Niekamp has 50 tackles and three sacks. Thomas and Edler lead Blair Oaks with four and three interceptions, respectively, from their cornerback spots.

"Their (line)backers are super-aggressive, really fast, they get downhill so fast," Hess said. "Their defensive line is outstanding — they're very disciplined, I wouldn't say they're really big guys, but they're very physical and they get the job done.

"They have great adjustments, they have great things that they do on defense. Again, the same thing that they have on offense, they have athletes all over the place."

The Bulldogs, winners of 10 straight, are seeking to change their fortunes in playing for the District 5 title for a second straight year. South Callaway lost at North Callaway 38-20 in the 2017 championship.

"Back-to-back in that (title) game is huge, and that's what I told the players, just how big that is for our program in moving forward," Hess said. "We want to make that an annual thing."

Ryan Boland can be reached at (573) 826-2422, or on Twitter @FultonSunSports.