MOKANE — For South Callaway Bulldogs head football coach Zack Hess, the similarities stand out beyond the matching marks.
A spot in the Class 1, District 6 championship will be at stake tonight when No. 2 seed South Callaway hosts the third-seeded South Shelby Cardinals in a semifinal clash. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
While the Bulldogs and Cardinals feature identical 4-6 records, Hess noted that both squads emphasize hearty running games and fierce defensive units.
"I think our two teams really mirror each other in a lot of ways," Hess said Tuesday afternoon. "I think (South Shelby) is wanting to run the ball, they're wanting to play good defense.
"I really feel like the strength of their team is their defense and that's what we want our identity to be — a hard-nosed, smash-mouth, play-good-defense type of team."
South Callaway stopped a two-game losing streak with a 55-7 quarterfinal rampage over No. 7 seed Westran last week in Mokane. The Bulldogs piled up 428 yards rushing as a team, while South Callaway's defense limited Westran to just 101 yards of total offense and tallied three takeaways.
"I gave the analogy (Monday) in our meeting that if this was baseball, that would have been a perfect game from a pitcher's standpoint," Hess said. "It really was, offensively and defensively, (if) you take away the one play there at the end of the game (when Westran scored).
"They did a great job, I was very proud of them, but at the same time you can't take that score into next week. We've got to figure out ways to keep getting better, keep improving because it's just going to get harder and harder as we go here."
South Shelby moved on by surviving in a 28-20, double-overtime victory at home over No. 6 seed Mark Twain last week.
"I think towards the end of the game, they started controlling the line of scrimmage," Hess said of the Cardinals after viewing video of the game. "They had some plays down in the red zone where it was QB iso(lation) right up the middle for 10 yards.
"You could tell that they were wearing down, a little bit, Mark Twain's defensive line. Their better player, No. 32, he kind of took over."
Hess would be referring to Cardinals quarterback Daniel Burke, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior. Burke's passing totals this season are pedestrian — 43-of-116 (37 percent) for 599 yards, only five touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Burke's preference is to run the ball and that's where he inflicts his damage. He has rushed for 1,211 yards (5.5 average) and 11 scores as South Shelby averages 180.7 yards on the ground.
"He's not like a burner, he's not super-fast, he's not super-big and physical," Hess said. "He's just a good athlete. He's got quick feet and he can make guys miss, and he doesn't go down on first contact.
"I think he has great vision. I've seen several plays where the play was intended to go one way and he just cuts back and gets more yards."
Hess was also impressed by the Cardinals' offensive line — anchored by senior guard Cason Wilt (5-11, 220) and senior center Caleb Stracham (6-0, 240) — that creates openings for Burke.
"They're just real physical, they get after it," Hess said. "That's a deadly combination when you've got a physical offensive line and a really good running back," Hess said.
The Bulldogs' defense — which is allowing 164.7 yards rushing per game — will try to badger Burke and South Shelby into passing predicaments tonight.
"Can we match that physicality, can we be consistent with our alignments and our gap control, and can our linebackers get downhill and tackle?" Hess asked. "I think that's the challenge for us in getting them into situations where we can anticipate a little better about what they're going to do throwing the ball.
"They have a tendency to throw the ball on third-and-long, just like everybody else. We've got to play in front of the (yard) sticks and win on first down."
The Cardinals' defensive unit will transition between four- and five-man fronts, Hess explained. Wilt sparks South Shelby with 123 tackles from his linebacker position, followed by senior defensive end Luke Woutzke (6-0, 195) with 82 tackles and a team-high 13 sacks.
Senior defensive end Guy Timbrook (6-4, 190) is next with six sacks and Wilt with two. Freshman free safety Trey Countryman (6-0, 145) tops the Cardinals with two interceptions.
"They funnel everything to No. 56 (Wilt) and let him make plays," Hess said. "He gets downhill and he seems to always be around the ball. He's just a really impressive kid."
South Callaway will seek to batter South Shelby's defense with its diverse running attack that is averaging 269.2 yards. Senior running back Devin Borghardt directs the Bulldogs with 837 yards (7.8 average) and eight touchdowns, followed by junior running back Hayden Vaught with 519 yards (11.8 average) and seven scores.
Senior running back Nick Mealy has 470 yards (4.4 average) and five touchdowns, while sophomore running back Trace Helsel has contributed 299 yards (4.9 average) and three scores.
Senior quarterback Cole Shoemaker has also gained 220 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
"I think that's really important — you don't overuse a single player and you're attacking all areas of the field, interior and exterior," Hess said. "We've got to keep that going."
Notes: In tonight's other District 6 semifinal matchup, No. 1 seed Brentwood (5-5) hosts No. 5 Harrisburg (6-4). Brentwood advanced with a 41-0 rout of No. 8 seed Louisiana in last week's quarterfinals, while Harrisburg upended No. 4 Paris/Faith Walk 30-24.
Ryan Boland can be reached at (573) 826-2422, or on Twitter @FultonSunSports.