WARDSVILLE — The Blair Oaks Falcons are only one win away from extending their regular season win streak of 46 games into the 2020 season.
The only team standing in their way is the last team to beat them in the regular season.
The Falcons host the California Pintos tonight with a chance to win the Tri-County Conference outright for a fifth consecutive season. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at the Falcon Athletic Complex.
"This is still California," Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said. "When I look at it, I see California, and they're playing their best football.
"I've been beaten by California several times early in my head-coaching career, and I know how traditionally strong this program is."
California (1-7) enters the game coming off a 21-14 loss last Friday to Southern Boone, a game in which the Pintos held a one-point lead with two minutes to play. But a fumble turned into a defensive touchdown for the Eagles, and the Pintos suffered their third single-digit defeat of the season.
"We knew how good Southern Boone was, and you could just see, as the game wore on, how much confidence California grew," LePage said. "Our players gained a lot of respect, it was very quiet in the film room. They were glued to what California was doing.
"They really put it out there last week, and we got to experience that on film."Blair Oaks (8-0) is coming off a 57-7 win last Friday against School of the Osage. LePage was most pleased with his offense lining up with quarterback Dylan Hair under center on the final possession of the first half and running the ball non-stop for a touchdown.
"We were able to take a seven-play drive and score on it with less than three minutes to go, and it was all runs, it was all under center, it was all option and power football," LePage said.
California is averaging 15.3 points per game with an offense geared to run the football.
The offense is led by quarterback Calen Kruger (5-foot-10, 175 pounds), a sophomore who took over as full-time quarterback in Week 3 at the start of conference play. Kruger is 34-of-92 passing for 446 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions, and he's also second on the team in rushing with 401 yards on 62 carries with six touchdowns.
"If you compare them to somebody we've played, it's kind of like Hallsville, with the way they use their quarterback," LePage said. "They use their quarterback as an extension of their run game off the option. He's extremely mobile, he's extremely fast.
"They want to run the football, but they're able to drop back and effectively throw the ball down the field."
Junior running back Tagen Higgins (5-10, 175) leads the Pintos' run game with 420 yards on 57 carries and five touchdowns. In the loss to Southern Boone, Higgins broke loose for a 97-yard touchdown run.
"The one Higgins ran was an inside play, but he bounced it (to the outside)," LePage said. "That's the danger of when you're playing California. They're a power-based offense. They want to run it right at you, but Higgins and the quarterback, they're able to bounce it. With their speed to get to the edge, they can create a big play in a hurry."
Blair Oaks' defense has been able to stop the run game, holding opponents to 48.1 yards rushing per game.
"One thing we really stressed this week on defense was setting the edge," LePage said. "Don't let them get to the edge, turn them back inside. Let's be able to make a tackle."
Senior Logan Parish (5-11, 190) also has 253 yards rushing and two scores for the Pintos.
Kruger's two leading targets at wide receiver are sophomore Drake Schlup (5-8, 160) and senior Clayton Winkler (6-1, 190). Schlup has a team-high 180 yards receiving and had a 47-yard touchdown catch against Southern Boone.
"One play can change a game," LePage said. " It was a back-and-forth type of game, and when that young man caught the ball and took off running, that was a game-changer."
Defensively, the Pintos run a 4-4 defense, but LePage also saw California line up in a 3-4 defense against Versailles, so the Falcons have been practicing to face both this week.
"Their defensive linemen are attacking just like they are on the offensive side," LePage said. "They almost look like they're trying to run-block and go through. Their linebackers are good, sure tacklers.
"Southern Boone was never able to create a big play, and they got impatient, because Southern Boone is a big-play type of offense. That really played into California's favor."
California will have several players line up on both offense and defense. Higgins, a linebacker, has 73 tackles this season, including a team-high 14 stops against Southern Boone. Kruger finished with nine tackles, three for a loss, and a forced fumble and interception against the Eagles.
Kruger is listed as a linebacker, but he's capable of playing in the secondary.
"They put him 12 yards deep and just allow him to roam center field," LePage said. " That guy can shut down the middle of the field."
Junior Garrett Burger, an offensive lineman who plays linebacker, has 63 tackles and two sacks for the Pintos. Burger is the Pintos' only returning all-conference player.
Junior Bryant Davis leads the Pintos with 75 tackles this season. He also has two fumble recoveries and one interception.
LePage said California has a physical defensive line.
"When they changed the line of scrimmage, they were able to get to Southern Boone's option game before it was getting started," LePage said. "We're really respectful of their D-line and the way they play."
Tonight will be Senior Night for the Falcons' 12 seniors, but it doesn't figure to be their final home game. Blair Oaks currently holds the No. 1 seed in Class 3 District 5 with 48.32 points. Buffalo (6-2) is second with 41.00 points, followed by Springfield Catholic (5-3) in third with 35.64 and Salem (5-3) in fourth with 31.58.
"This is an important game for us because goal No. 1 was to play together as a team, and we've been doing that," LePage said. "Goal No. 2 is to win the Tri-County Conference, so this is our most important game all year, because if we win this game, we win the Tri-County Conference.
"If we win the game, we set ourselves up very well in the district, and that's goal No. 3. Goal No. 4, we're going to leave out there, but we can get two goals accomplished tonight."
Notes: Blair Oaks stayed put at No. 1 in Class 3 in this week's Missouri Media Rankings with all nine first-place votes. Odessa (8-0) was the unanimous No. 2 team behind the Falcons. Blair Oaks' last conference loss was Oct. 3, 2014, in a 21-10 loss at California. ... Blair Oaks has won 11 straight games at the Falcon Athletic Complex. The Falcons' last home loss, a 49-20 defeat to Maryville, came in the Class 3 state semifinals in 2017. LePage is hopeful Blake Moore will return at left tackle tonight after missing last Friday's game due to illness. If not, Adam Jurgensmeyer will start again in his place. With a knee injury still bothering Adam Hughes, LePage said Nico Canale will continue to split time with him at defensive tackle. Canale recovered a fumble last Friday against Osage. "He really got after it, and he'll probably see the majority of the playing time again this week," LePage said.