Teams square off in Chillicothe one week after 34-19 CHS triumph at St. Joseph earned Hornets home field for district-playoffs opener
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
The Chillicothe High School football Hornets might not have aced the “quiz” at St. Joseph: Benton last week, but they certainly earned a very good grade.
Tonight, they’ll take a final exam over the same material and their score on it will be a major factor in their final 2018 grade.
One week after besting Benton’s Cardinals 34-19 on the road, the Hornets will welcome them to Bob Fairchild Field at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II for a first-round (quarterfinal) game in the Class 3 District 8 playoffs. At stake will be a chance to play at least one more time at defending state champion Maryville next week.
The Hornets enter the action in a position this year’s team has not previously experienced – owning a winning streak, albeit an extremely-modest 2-games streak involving opponents who combined to capture only two regular-season victories.
Still, Tim Rulo, first-year CHS head coach, affirms, for a team which struggled for the most part the first month-and-a-half of the season, learning how to string together solid, winning performances is an important step to take.
“To be able to get two wins in a row is big,” he shared with local reporters after Wednesday’s practice.
The oddity of immediately rematching with an opponent is a new experience and brings its own motivational peril for the winner of the first meeting – the Hornets, in this case.
“A lot of it comes down to how the teams respond to the (previous) result,” Rulo reasons. “For our case, now that we won, we don’t want to take any team too lightly, right? You don’t want this to become a ‘trap’ game” in which the winner slips into a mental trap of overconfidence.
“… We approached that very openly with our guys on Monday.”
In terms of strategic approach, neither side figures to have the experience or personnel to significantly alter what it attempted to do against the other in the space of seven days.
Last week’s contest saw both lean very heavily on trying to run the ball, as they’d done throughout the season, and both had some success doing so.
Chillicothe rushed for just over 200 yards, including 130 by junior fullback Dawson Wheeler as he filled in for injured senior starter Cade Koehly. Benton – with shifty quarterback Caden Stone getting loose a couple of times and its running backs having had some early success breaking tackles to get extra yardage – had 156 yards on the ground.
Not surprisingly, BHS first-year head coach Kevin Keeton pointed to Wheeler’s inside success – the Hornet averaged over seven yards a carry – as the primary defensive issue his team has to address.
“We have to tackle the fullback,” he declares.
Wheeler’s success, even on short notice as Koehly practiced through Wednesday last week before being sidelined – “we always are ‘repping’ different guys (in practice)” to be ready for such situations, Rulo points out, had a recent precedent.
Two years ago, in the Hornets’ prior visit to Benton for the regular-season finale, with starting fullback Josh Kille – already a 1,000-yards rusher – having sustained a leg injury the week before, senior backup Dean Adkins III stepped in and, behind tremendous blocking, shredded the Cardinals for 217 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries.
While Keeton says his offense will need to “sustain our blocks longer” to move the ball more effectively and consistently, Rulo and defensive coordinator Chad Smith would be pleased to see the Hornets’ defensive linemen perform as well as they did a week ago.
“I thought our defensive line played really well,” the head coach stated Wednesday.
That elevated level of performance was a bit unanticipated, considering Koehly’s injury not only took him out of the offense, but away from his starting linebacker post. That and other considerations required a shuffling of personnel, including junior Luke Hopper getting his second start at defensive tackle and excelling, while smallish Donald McCracken played a majority of the time at nose guard.
“For the first time, I’m really seeing our defensive linemen understand to just run down the line, not run up into the backfield,” notes Rulo.
“It’s a very easy tendency for ‘D’ linemen” to want to penetrate straight ahead, he expanded. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I want to get a sack or tackle the running back in the backfield,’ but, in reality, (effective) ‘D’ line play happens along the line of scrimmage.
“They have to learn to run down the line, read their keys, read with their hands, and get down the line.”
Both teams figure to run the ball the great majority of the time – they had only 11 passing attempts between them a week ago, but Chillicothe’s success in producing a few big passing plays – albeit with some luck on one critical occasion – probably was the decisive factor in its victory.
While the Hornets won’t throw it often, they almost certainly will try to test Benton’s deep air defense at least a few times again after last week hitting on three deep balls – one for a long, first-drive score and the other two setting up the back-breaking buzzer-beating touchdown on the last play of the first half – and narrowly missing on two others.
Personnel-wise, Koehly is anticipated to be available for at least some action, if needed, but an effort might be made to get by without him as much as possible, in order to buy him more healing time. Rulo says he plans to start with Wheeler with the bigger Koehly perhaps a candidate to be spotted in in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Koehly, safety Lavery Jones, and Isaih Kille are the only members of this year’s CHS team who have started a district-playoffs game previously, Jones having been at cornerback last year and Il Kille and Koehly at the defensive ends.
Jones has been a constant on defense all season – and he got his first offensive touchdown of his career on a 10-yards run at Benton last week, but Koehly has missed 1-1/2 games and I. Kille went down with a knee injury in the second quarter of the season opener.
After initial hopes that I. Kille might be able to return to action in early October went unrealized, the junior is expected to dress out and perhaps play sparingly this week to knock some rust off, Rulo reports, in the hope that he might be able to help more should an 11th game come to pass next week.
Whether that use would come on defense, where I. Kille was moved from end to tackle at season’s start, but could be switched back, or on offense, where he was a starting halfback was not disclosed by the coach.
“We don’t have to throw him into the fire right away,” Rulo said of the spot duty he would anticipate for I. Kille. “… I think he’ll do really well when he’s in there.”
While the likelihood and intimation by both head coaches is that the approach for their teams this week will vary little, if any, from last week’s contest, like any coach, Rulo has hedged his preparatory bets on what Benton might do defensively, since it did show a different look for a while early in the previous meeting.
“That’s why, this week, we practiced against both odd and even fronts, just in case they do something different,” he acknowledged Wednesday.
By and large, however, the Hornets boss expects the Cardinals, like his own club, will be focused on trying to be better at what they attempted last week, rather than going with something new.
“They might know the plays (which were effective last time) are coming,” Rulo muses. “That just means you’re going to have to execute a little better.
“… I’m excited for the challenge. … I think we’re up to the task.”
Tonight’s CHS-Benton survivor is certain to go to Maryville next Friday because Kansas City: Northeast informed Maryville on Wednesday that it was forfeiting their quarterfinal game.