CHS hopes to improve on 1-4 2018 record, recent fortunes against Lafayette Fighting Irish (4-1) when they journey to St. Joseph tonight (Friday, Sept. 28)
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Had both teams not been top-heavy with seniors a year ago, this Friday’s Midland Empire Conference football clash between the Chillicothe High School Hornets and host St. Joseph: Lafayette Fighting Irish could be viewed through a “ revenge” prism by the Hornets.
Sailing along undefeated and having pocketed a dominating 24-0 home win over 6-times defending conference Maryville a few weeks earlier, Chillicothe hosted Lafayette in week six of the 2017 season undefeated and largely unchallenged.
However, a pulsating performance by stellar, then-senior quarterback Diego Bernard propelled the Irish to a 3-scores lead over CHS in the first half and, despite a stirring Hornets comeback that had them only a successful 2-points conversion attempt away from tying the game early in the fourth period, the visitors handed Chillicothe its first and only regular-season loss by a score of 54-38.
Given those circumstances, the next year’s meeting between the squads normally would have at least some overtones of revenge/affirmation. However, because each current squad has only a couple of starters back from that tremendous battle and both have different head coaches, tonight’s (Sept. 28, 2018) game at LHS’ Alumni Stadium lacks the crackle it might otherwise be expected to have.
It will, however, be a contest both sides need to win – for much-different reasons.
Chillicothe comes into the action 1-4 on the season and 1-2 in the MEC after squandering a chance to post a second-straight victory last week in a 25-14 loss at Kansas City: St. Pius X. The Hornets begin the downslope of the 2018 regular season wanting to give concrete scoreboard evidence of the improvement first-year head coach Tim Rulo insists the team has made.
Lafayette (4-1, 2-1 conf.), despite being about as inexperienced as Chillicothe, is looking not for a confidence-building conquest, but to stay in the hunt for at least a runnerup finish in the MEC, if not the title.
The game’s plotline is a simple one – will Lafayette’s speed and quickness again be more than the Hornets can handle, as has been the case several times this decade, or can Chillicothe solve its ball-security problems, sustain scoring drives that also keep the Irish playmakers either on the sidelines or playing defense, and use ball control to eat up the clock and shock the Irish on their home field?
“The more our offense is on the field, the less their offense is on the field,” Rulo says of the strategy he hopes his squad can execute.
Beyond the obvious need to eliminate the turnovers which had plagued the Hornets to date – “We need to take care of the football,” the CHS head coach understates, he says play-after-play solid execution of blocking assignments will be critical.
“Getting our linemen up to (the Lafayette linebackers) is going to be key and how we block the perimeter with our (wingbacks),” Rulo shared during an interview with local media Wednesday after practice.
“You can’t get behind the (yardsticks). You’ve got to stay in front of those,” he says of the need for gaining at least some positive yardage every snap and also avoiding offensive penalties.
The new CHS coach says the entirely-new offensive line from 2017, which will be largely responsible for achieving those aims, has pleased him with its progress through preseason practice and five games.
“They’ve done a really good job,” Rulo asserts. “I’ve been very impressed with their growth.
“Really, the sky’s the limit. I think those guys don’t even realize how good they can be. … Now we’ve just got to do it every play.”
Potentially making the line’s challenge against Lafayette more difficult will be the need to pull gimpy senior center Drake Lightner from the action for at least a game or two to try to get his sprained ankle healed.
“We’re going to shut him down now, because … he just keeps re-spraining and re-spraining (the ankle) and it gets to the point where it’s not getting any better,” disclosed the Hornets coach Wednesday. “He needs just some time off, … so hopefully it doesn’t get sprained again.”
Stepping in to make his first start will be sophomore Landon Swift. Given that center-quarterback exchanges have been problematic for CHS at times already this season, the introduction of a new snapper doesn’t figure to enhance the chances for needed improvement in that regard.
Noting that reserves have been forced into action during games, due to CHS injuries, several times already this season, Rulo says those replacements generally have acquitted themselves satisfactorily.
“That’s why you get guys ready in practice,” he affirms. “… I’ve been very happy with the guys that have had to step up during the middle of games.”
One who came in last week was junior fullback Dawson Wheeler. Subbing for Cade Koehly, the Hornets’ leading rusher and best power back who was knocked out of the St. Pius X game just before halftime by what, fortunately, turned out to be only a knee bruise, Wheeler averaged over four yards a carry in the last half. He is likely to start at fullback against Lafayette, although Koehly will be in the lineup at his customary linebacker spot (alongside Wheeler) and could see some time on offense, as well.
Lafayette’s personnel are mostly different this year, but still possess many of the same characteristics of dangerous speed and quickness that troubled Chillicothe a year ago.
“In some ways, their new quarterback (6’1”, 185-pounds junior Daeton McGaughy) is very much ‘Diego 2.0,’” Rulo says. “He is long, athletic, can throw it pretty well, can move around.”
Out of their spread formation, the Irish will use many familiar plays, the Hornets coach says – inside zone-read runs by the quarterback and running back, jet sweeps with motioning slotbacks, screen passes, longer-development pass routes (horizontal and vertical), and flood routes.
While noting the Irish have other potential playmakers, like smallish sophomores Derrick May and Jamar James, Rulo states, “In the end, it’s about, ‘Can you contain that quarterback? Can you keep him in the pocket? Can you make sure to pin and crowd him as much as possible and limit the number of big plays?’
“When they’re that athletic, it’s going to be hard to give up no big plays, but you’ve got to limit them as much as possible.”
Former St. Joseph: Benton head coach Matt Tabor has shifted across town to Lafayette, serving now as offensive coordinator. He is notorious for his penchant for calling “gadget” plays, espcially his favorite – the “hook-and-ladder.”
New LHS head coach Eric McDowell has been the Irish defensive coordinator for a number of years and continues to call the defensive shots.
In the 3-4-4 defense he uses almost exclusively, he has received very good play from inside linebacker Brian Estes, outside linebacker Luke Whisenand, and defensive tackle Moses Hicks IV, Rulo reports from his video review of Lafayette. Hicks is the Irish’s top returnee from 2017, when he was chosen all-MEC on both lines.
The Chillicothe coach considers the Irish defense very aggressive and very physical with a mobile, though yung, secondary. McDowell rotates a lot of players in and out on defense through a game, often changing a group of them series by series, Rulo notes.