Friday night's host has moved ball well thus far entering clash of 2-1 squads coming off losses in their Midland Empire Conference openers
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — In sports, a “trap” game describes the situation for a team coming off an emotions-charged contest – especially one it won – as it faces a foe it routinely would figure to dominate and thus runs the risk of not fully preparing for.
For this year’s Chillicothe High School football Hornets, Friday’s Midland Empire Contest at Cameron against the host Dragons probably doesn’t quite fully check all those boxes – last week’s game with archrival Maryville was a decisive and not-unexpected loss, not one which figured to have left the Hornets emotionally drained, but still it might slip into “trap” territory for them because of their recent history against Cameron.
Since the brief heyday of Cameron’s high-powered, high-efficiency passing attack in the middle of last decade, Chillicothe has been invincible against the Dragons, ringing up 14 triumphs in a row. In the last seven of those – beginning in 2014 and including a couple of district-playoffs matchups, the Hornets have overwhelmed their geographic MEC neighbor by a composite total score of 318-29.
Even when the Dragons started last season 2-0 against non-conference foes, following their loss to Kansas City: St. Pius X in their league opener, they proved to be fodder for previously-winless Chillicothe, falling 34-8 in Chillicothe for the Hornets’ first-ever victory under the leadership of now-second-year head coach Tim Rulo.
As Chillicothe ventures to Cameron’s Dave Goodwin Field for a 7 p.m. MEC meeting Friday, the Dragons – in their inaugural year under well-traveled Missouri prep football coaching veteran Jeff Wallace – once again stand 2-1 overall and are coming off a loss to St. Pius X.
Cameron’s performances in the first third of this year’s schedule, however, appears more impressive than its fast start of 2018. It dominated opening foe Kansas City: Northeast more decisively, handled KC: East convincingly in week two, and then twice led SPX last week before eventually losing 35-28 on the road.
If the relative capabilities of this year’s Cameron squad were the only variable at play Friday, compared to last year, the case for anticipating a closer, more-competitive game against Chillicothe would be a simple one to make.
Not only have the Dragons played better – especially on offense, where it only has needed to punt a couple of times total in three contests – in 2019 than their 2018 counterparts, but they have numerous returning starters from a year ago on hand – most of them still as underclassmen.
However, just has Wallace has his club elevating its game, Rulo has his 2-1 senior-dominated squad indisputably off to a much-better start this fall.
As much as Cameron is upgraded, Chillicothe has shown as much or more enhancement of its 2019 performance to date. That would seem to point toward another in the string of decisive Hornets victories over the Dragons.
Therein lies the rub, as an old saying goes.
Will the Hornets hit Goodwin Field thinking an easy win is preordained and, thus, not prepared to do their best? If so, Cameron seems to have shown enough offensive potency to make it a troubling night. And, as sports fans know, once an underdog gets the scent of a surprise victory against an uninspired opponent, shaking them can be very difficult and the chances of unexpected anxiety leading to critical, late-game mistakes that turn the tide the underdog’s way grow.
Rulo is hopeful his squad has absorbed the lessons of last week’s blowout loss to Maryville in a beneficial way and views this game as the first opportunity to correcting the revealed flaws and elevating its game.
“You always learn a lot about a team in adversity, so we’re going to learn a lot about our guys,” he shares.
An intriguing aspect – perhaps the critical one for Cameron – in Friday’s contest will be whether it can run the ball better against the Hornets. In their five most-recent regular-season clashes with Chillicothe, the Dragons’ rushing yardage totals have been – in order from 2014 through 2018 – 73, 37, 17, 8, and 14.
Should Friday’s hosts find a way to gain decent yardage on the ground, it figures to improve the chances of their primary weapon – a “spread” passing game – being effective. If Chillicothe – likely deploying seven or eight defenders in pass coverage any time they feel the Dragons are likely to throw – again erases the Cameron run threat and forces it to throw on most down, it could have the same type of success it had against similar air approaches from Marshall and Kirksville.
The critical factor in this central question could be Dragons junior quarterback Ty Campbell. He gained only 19 yards in seven carries against Chillicothe last year, but had multiple effective perimeter runs against St. Pius X last week, often behind lead blocking from the single setback in Cameron’s “pistol” formation.
“Their quarterback does a good job,” acknowledges Rulo. “He ran the ball a lot more last week against St. Pius X and I have the feeling we may see a lot more of that.”
Campbell already has shown the Hornets he can find receivers through the air against them. As a sophomore last year, he was on target 15 times in 25 attempts for 131 yards, although he was intercepted twice.
Under Wallace, Cameron regularly lines up with four wide receivers – either an end and slotback to each side or both slotbacks on the same side as a split end.
Rulo says Campbell’s top targets are slotback Bryson Speer (whose twin brother Ty is the other starting slotback) and senior end Nick Helmich.
“They’ve got weapons and they’re figuring out how to get them the ball,” the Chillicothe coach observes.
He adds, “They haven’t had to punt much. They’ve been very effective on offense.”
While the Cameron offense clearly looks improved, its defense seems to be lagging.
In last week’s game, both times the Dragons’ offense moved the ball down the field and scored to take a lead over St. Pius X, the defense could not keep Warriors from moving right back down the field – more often than not with the pass – and regaining the upper hand. After SPX did that late in the third quarter and converted for two points to gain a 35-28 lead, the teams unexpectedly played a scoreless fourth quarter, although each continued to move the ball, only to bog down short of the end zone.
Unless Cameron somehow shores up its run defense from a year ago, when Chillicothe rushed for 339 yards, the Hornets – if they don’t commit turnovers – figure to score a significant number of points. If that happens, that also could help force Cameron to be mostly 1-dimensional on offense – throwing on most downs, which is what the Hornets’ coaching staff desires.
Friday’s game could, at least temporarily, become a line of demarcation.
Given the vast number of Chillicothe starting positions held by seniors, while starts only two 12th graders, by the time the teams meet in Chillicothe again in 2020, the Dragons presumably will be their second season in Wallace’s system and, with many of the same players back with two or three years of starting experience, likely far more dangerous, especially against a less-seasoned Hornets team.
Friday’s game looks to mark the first time this season that Chillicothe will have a player absence of consequence. Senior 2-way lineman Isaac Washburn is not expected to play, for health reasons, according to Rulo. On offense, junior Josh Watterson will make his first varsity start at tackle. On defense, 230-pounds sophomore Damarcus Kelow, who had his best-ever performance in last week’s loss against Maryville when he made four solo tackles and assisted on one, will be Washburn’s replacement as a down lineman.