Both teams have two wins in first year under new head coach entering Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, regular-season finale. Game likely to be prelude to playoffs rematch next week
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Two teams. Two 2018 wins each thus far. Two Midland Empire Conference victories apiece, both over the same opponents. Two head coaches in their first year leading their respective squads.
Only makes sense that, barring a shocking development in Kansas City this weekend, the teams are about to meet two times in a row.
The Chillicothe High School football Hornets would like to alter that theme in one way, though. They would rather make only one trip to St. Joseph: Benton’s Sparks Field, not two.
To make that happen – to earn the right to open the Class 3 District 8 playoffs on Bob Fairchild Field in their own Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II, rather than back in south St. Joseph a week from now, the Hornets will need vanquish Benton’s Cardinals tonight, starting at 7 p.m.
Aware that tonight’s result likely won’t change the fact that CHS’ and BHS’ teams will line up against each other again next Friday, Hornets head coach Tim Rulo views victory tonight as still of value and worth doing legally whatever is needed to achieve.
“We’ve really bounced that around as a staff,” the first-year CHS gridiron chief tells the C-T of the internal debate on how much to invest, strategically, in tonight’s prelude to the expected district-playoffs opener.
“… To me, I think winning, getting our guys another home game, is really important and really valuable for this program. So, in my mind, we need to do whatever we can (to win), not worry about holding anything back. Let’s win, and then let’s focus on winning again.”
Not only are both sides entering with the many aforementioned identical 2018 histories and situations, but they also both are pursuing their first winning streak – albeit only a “mini-streak” of back-to-back victories at this time.
The Hornets had to go hard almost all the way to the final horn at home last Friday to subdue St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond, 40-33. Benton was more comfortable in its week eight triumph over Cameron, 28-7 and beat Bishop LeBlond more easily than did Chillicothe, but some other results against common foes compare more favorably for the Hornets, so not a lot of stock should be put in particular scores.
“I feel like they mirror us in many ways,” says Rulo of the Cardinals. “They’ve improved a lot from week one. They’re learning a new offense, as well, because they were (using a) spread – throwing the ball quite a bit – and now they’re running the wing-T.”
Responds first-year Benton skipper Kevin Keaton colorfully when asked how he feels about where the Cardinals are, at this time, in their development in his system, “I heard this quote from an old coach once: ‘The only human beings who love change are babies in dirty diapers.’
“With that being said, we have been able to push the needle on several intangibles from June to now that makes me feel good about what we are getting done.”
In terms of strategies and personnel, Benton has a different offensive look under Keaton than it did during Matt Tabor’s extended run as head coach.
Where Tabor tried to exploit the athleticism, speed, and elusiveness of personnel from a “spread” offensive set that tried to get the quarterback and receivers with the ball “in space,” the new coach – with different personnel – has the Cardinals running from wing-T, much like Chillicothe’s staple offense for decades under Fairchild and successor Phil Willard.
Junior Caden Stone doesn’t throw the ball a lot, instead either running it occasionally or, more often, handing it away to backs like Austin Butts, Brennen Flint, and Garison Dydell for inside and off-tackle carries behind a large offensive line (ranging from 205 to 285 pounds).
The lesser emphasis on and weaponry for a widespread attack could be a style Chillicothe’s defense is better-equipped to handle than many it has squared off with this season.
Both CHS non-conference opponents were most effective at passing the ball and, not surprisingly, that translated to victory at the Hornets’ expense. Similarly in MEC play, foes with quarterbacks will good passing skill – including Bishop LeBlond – were able to exploit that to either extend possessions or score with throws both long and short.
Against teams that didn’t lean as heavily on a passing attack or didn’t have as skilled a throwing quarterback, notably Cameron and Kansas City: St. Pius X, didn’t have a lot of success moving the ball against the Hornets. St. Pius X twice capitalized on turnover-provided short fields for two of its three touchdowns and passed effectively – aside from one somewhat-lucky, yet pivotal, screen pass – only in the late going when, with the lead, it had CHS overplaying the run.
As for the Benton 3-5 defense, Rulo says video shows it to be one that tries to “play downhill” with its linebackers group, led by middle ’backer Joe Ford, to an extreme.
“They’re very aggressive on defense. We probably have not seen a team that’s been that aggressive,” he reports.
Keaton indicates that won’t change against the run-heavy Hornets, who average throwing the ball only eight times a game versus 45 runs. Last week, CHS ran it 67 times against small Bishop LeBlond, racking up about 370 yards and 26 first downs.
“We will have to stop the run. Period,” the Benton coach states flatly. “When I watch the Hornets on film, I see big dudes (blocking) who get off the ball.
“We will have to match Chillicothe’s physicality.”
Rulo says he’s seen his offensive unit’s growing familiarity with the “flexbone” offense it now features is allowing it to execute with more confidence and efficiency.
“I’ve been very happy with our confidence and especially our level of comfort with our offense, even as we’ve added a ‘wrinkle’ here or there,” he commented to the C-T Wednesday. “It’s nice when you can say, ‘it’s just like this play (example),’ because they know that (referenced) play, … because then they’re like, ‘OK, I can do that, coach.”
If the game plays out fairly evenly, as is a definite possibility, the “third rail” – special teams – could tip the scales.
With a shift to quarterback Jaden Winder as the placekicker last week, Chillicothe seemed to upgrade that facet of its “special forces,” Winder booting a 34-yards field goal and three “extra points.”
On the Benton side, game video has shown the Cardinals with a possible vulnerability to having punts blocked or hampered by poor snaps. If CHS can get a block or a short field from a poor kick, especially if it came early and allowed the Hornets to jump ahead by a couple of scores, it could go a long way toward helping CHS dictate play with its ground game.
“That would be great,” Rulo affirms the strategic advantage of playing from in front.
On the other hand, if the Hornets were to revert to their careless ballhandling of the first two thirds of the season, Benton could get the upper hand. Neither team has yet demonstrated comeback capability, as yet.
Although the CHS coach cites a couple of his team’s players as being somewhat questionable, health-wise, for tonight’s regular-season finale, the Hornets do enter it in generally good health after having battled some early-season injuries, with only week one casualty Isaih Kille, who has not been able to return from that knee injury, definitely out.
“That’s a tribute to coach (Chad) Smith and the continued work our guys are doing in the weight room,” lauds Rulo. “It just allows the ‘dings’ and bruises (which inevitably occur during a season) to not be as bad.”
By being more or less locked in to either the No. 4 or 5 slot on the upcoming District 8 playoffs bracket, Chillicothe find themselves in the same half of the bracket as top seed and defending Class 3 state champion Maryville.
That has the Hornets, at least, focusing on maximizing what positives it could bank before a possible second meeting with the Spoofhounds in the district semifinals two weeks hence.
If CHS can advance that far, it will have won three times in a row and assure itself of no worse than a 4-7 season in its inaugural year under Rulo before stepping on the field at Maryville in early November. That mark and the upgraded late-season fortunes would be highly-preferable to a 2-8 mark which would result from consecutive defeats by Benton.
However, as noted at the beginning of this article, the St. Joseph team is in the very same boat as Keaton tries to bring Benton back to respectability and MEC gridiron relevance.