The Games

Game 14 Saturday Nov 5 Saugatuck @ Pewamo Westphalia BONUS Game 13 Friday Gobles v. Cassopolis @ Decatur

In the very middle of Northern Michigan there is a picturesque endzone etched out of a corn field. It looks like a movie scene attempting to capture small town America. Farmland is the backdrop to bleachers full of families ready to support their local team on a well manicured but noticeably worn grass football field. It had that sort or wear that is accustom to late fall with a beautiful grey sky to match. It is an image that has lasted in my mind since I first saw it as a junior in high school. I felt at the time like it should have been a picture on a stamp, it was just so unique to me. Pewamo Westphalia, two towns, one school, miles of farmland, and a very good football team. The Pewamo Westphalia Pirates have had years of success, missing the playoffs only once since 1998 and they were division seven’s state runner up last year. They were an exceptional team way back when my old team played them way back when as well.

This year Pewamo returns a large amount of players including last years all state standout Jared Smith. Jared has set several records including the state’s rushing touchdowns record in a season last year with fifty three, total touchdowns scored, rushing yards in a season with 3250, career rushing touchdowns at 117, 32 consecutive 100 yard rushing games, and he is still running teams over this year. After watching bits and pieces of the Pirates from this year I quickly notice that these aren’t the Pirates I remember. No longer are they running a inverted bone option attack they we faced in the playoffs, but now they are predominantly a power run team out of an I open formation. Its pure midwestern football, several downblocks with a fullback to kick out and a pulling guard and quarterback to lead up into the hole. It is very similar to the old hometown days of end right and left, with the way PW linemen are able to secure a double team and move the defender to the next level defender. There are a few wrinkles thrown out there that I’ve see where they might run a sweep intended to get outside and not inside the tackle power play oriented. They also mix in an I slot a more pass oriented formation and a two back shotgun formation as well. It’s clear that both of these formations are still designed to keep their running game intact. With a guy like Jared Smith in the backfield I’m not sure why anyone would want to throw that much anyway. The best part about the power play is that it can be run out of multiple formations so long as there is someone to kick the last defender and someone there to pull up and through the hole ahead of the ball carrier. I haven’t seen a one back formation from the videos I have watched but they way they have their quarterback pull up and through the line of scrimmage it would be a simple addition. That is if they are comfortable leading their quarterback up on a linebacker in which case I wouldn’t be. I haven’t seen them pull two linemen yet on what would look like a counter to most and the likely reason for this is their inability to control the open side defensive end in their I open formation. Usually teams that pull both linemen have a tight end block down to prevent a defender from chasing the play down from behind. The quarterback could read the defensive end in a shotgun formation but I also haven’t seen that either so I’m going to assume they don’t pull both linemen. Keep in mind my access to PW game films is very limited. Running an offenses like this with the “farm kids” they have you can just feel the grit and toughness they exude in their games. It’s a rough brand of football and it’s that toughness that teams have a difficult time dealing with. They quite honestly plowed through Detroit Loyola in a blizzard last year to punch their ticket to Ford Field and it was their toughness that shown through all the snow. It is incredibly difficult to beat teams like this because of their mentality this style of play develops more than anything else. Tough minded teams just won’t quit. Defensively the Pirates normally run a variation of a stacked 4-4, but against Saugatuck’s Wing T attack they will likely add another defender or two to the box. The unique part of this game will be how the PW athletes will morph from a heavy run defense into one that can handle the spread. Saugatuck is one of the only T teams I know to move from their traditional run formation into a spread look with a shift. I have no idea what PW will do against this shift but I do know that they have a roster full of six foot, one hundred and ninety-ish pound kids that in my mind should be able to move from one things to another relatively easy, I’m just curious to see who stays in the box and who goes.

Saugatuck has been in this situation before. They have a fantastic undefeated season cruising through their schedule, blowing teams out, but in the end have no playoff points to show for it due to the abundance of poor teams they face. It is a shame that an undefeated team has to travel for a district championship, let alone having to do it in back to back seasons. This years team just numbers wise is better than last years. The Indians have scored five hundred and fourteen points this season, an average of fifty seven points per game. According to maxpreps.com, Blake Dunn has accounted for thirty eight total touchdowns which is ten more than the rushing touchdowns record holder Jared Smith has this year. If you don’t know who Blake Dunn is, we discussed him on this site week one so quickly:

This past spring “Dunn won the 100 and 300 meter hurdles in Division 4 state-record times, going 14.33 seconds and 38.31, respectively. It was the third consecutive year that has won the 300 hurdles, and he captured the 110 after placing second in the event a year ago” mlive. Dunn is an all state athlete in football, basketball, and is committed to playing baseball for Western Michigan University.

Defensively they have been fantastic as well amassing five shutouts and allowing about three points per game. Last years loss to PW came on an uncharacteristic five turnovers for Saugatuck. As I mentioned earlier the flexibility of Saugatuck’s offense being able to shift from their Wing T offense to a spread that allows Blake Dunn more space and opportunities with the ball. I think they Indians will be able to score and keep pace with PW, the fear I have for them is the size of their roster. They rock twenty players and in what might be the most physical game for them this year, the depth of their team may be tested.

I’m optimistic on Saugatuck’s chances, I must be if I’m willing to drive two hours on a Saturday to get to this game. Every year you can argue the state championship is decided well before the championship game ever takes place. Back in the days when Muskegon Catholic Central battled Mendon in a district championship, that was the game for all the marbles even though it came weeks before the actual state championship game. In division seven this year Saugatuck’s district and regional championship game for the schools involved will likely yield this year’s champion in my opinion. I have no idea where we will stop and eat, but a coffee for the road will definitely be happening. If you happen to make your way to Pewamo Westphalia Saturday for the game at 1:00 flag us down we’d love to talk football with you.

BONUS

Since the main game is Saturday we get two games this week! I don’t have the time to really breakdown another game this week and my wonderful excuses are my family’s love for Halloween and I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. Friday we are going to stay close to home and head to Decatur to watch Gobles play Cassopolis. Gobles avenged a loss to Lawton in the first round by a score of 50-12 (they lost the first meeting 21-31) while Cass has only one blemish on their record.

Both teams run the wing T offense but they are also two teams that don’t mind breaking the T which is unique to that style of play. Breaking the T is a formation adjustment that allows the offense to get another blocker closer to the potential point of attack by means of a wing usually. The Gobles Tigers like to use a wing and then have him go in motion back toward his normal T spot in an angled shuffle similar to what a wing might do in an inverted bone option style play. I love the wing motion Gobles uses mainly because I haven’t seen it all that often and it is such a simple adjustment. Gobles is also going to slow things down and try to dominate time of possession which is something they have done quite a bit of this year. In college football with the pace teams like to play at nowadays time of possession is considered by some to be a dead statistic. In the smaller divisions of high school football it’s alive and well. Teams with limited numbers can use the running clock to shorten the game and run fewer plays, helping their players stay fresher throughout the course of the contest. Both teams will also go to the shotgun, but Gobles uses it almost solely in times of desperation. Cass has speed in the back field and thus is a little more willing to show different formations. They are a wing T team that is totally comfortable bouncing any sort of run be it by design or not. They are just that fast.

Defensively it’s fun to watch how wing T teams defend each other. One of the first musings on this site was about defending T teams and I think you’ll see two different styles between these two teams. I watched a highlight of the Cass Rangers from earlier this year when they were facing another wing T team and it appeared as though the Rangers ran a 6-2 with a third backer spy. The spy stays behind the linebackers and slow reads the play. On the flip side Gobles will run something similar but instead of a spy behind the linebackers they will use a short backer behind two defensive tackles that will line up hard in the A gaps. The two defensive tackles prevent the interior three linemen from getting to the short linebacker making him free to run to the fullback and beyond. The problem I can see Gobles having is Cass runs a slew of different formations and so Gobles won’t be able to stay in that defense all game. It needs to be able to move in an out based on the formation and that can be difficult, especially if Cass doesn’t formation substitute players. Formation substitutes can tip off an opposing defensive coordinator with usually enough time to make personnel changes that will fit the style of defense to the offense. So how will Gobles go from a defense facing a heavy run formation to a spread? The game was moved to Decatur due to the conditions of the Ranger’s home field. I’ve been to Cass before and calling their home field a mud pit late in the season can be an understatement. This years Cassopolis team is speed oriented as they often have been, but this year’s team seems to lack the big fullback that they were so oft to use, running teams over with short blast plays that break linebacker keys and spirits. In playing to their strengths, the speed, it’s easy to see why the Rangers would want to move the game to a neutral site. This will be the first time I have never eaten in Decatur despite its close proximity to my hometown but I have heard a lot about Final Gravity. The menu looks unique and who doesn’t like a fancy pizza? The Friday game is at seven o’clock and the weather looks like it should be a beautiful night for a championship football game.

Advertisements
The Games

Game 12 Watervliet @ Jackson Lumen Christi Oct. 26 Round 1 of the MHSAA Playoffs

Two years ago I remember putting my total faith and support into the maps app on my smart phone. My dad and I were traveling north to watch a division six regional game that we figured to be the best match up in the state. Somewhere hidden in a neighborhood of tall beautiful homes we found a field lit by stadium lights, shimmering gold, and a buzz for elite high school football. That day we watched Monroe Saint Mary Catholic on their way to winning a state championship that year outlast Jackson Lumen Christi. Outlast is the best way to put a 26-27 that went back and forth all the way down to the last possession. In a comfortably crisp fall night I watched Jackson Lumen Christi hand the ball fifty times to their singleback Khari Willis who on his last carry of his high school career fumbled. It was one of the greatest single game performances I have watched in person. Thousands of spectators watching one guy thrive on a big stage despite everyone in attendance knowing he was going to get it. We pulled out of the parking spot we found in a lovely cul de sac close by not feeling sorry for that single back but more speculating on a great athlete’s future and where he might end up. Khari Willis now plays defensive back for the Michigan State Spartans.

Fast forward to 2016 this Friday the local Watervliet Panthers are traveling to Jackson Lumen Christi to take on the Crusaders. In my opinion it’s the only intriguing match up with an area team as most first round games are either a rematch of a regular season conference game, Constantine @ Schoolcraft or Gobles @ Lawton, or a potential blowout. Watervliet has gained a reputation with their spread offense as a team that can score a lot of points, but they didn’t really start to see the major success they garnered lately until they started playing defense. They have scored just shy of five hundred points this year, but the two blemishes they have on their record are to the only two playoff teams they played this year. Watervliet surrendered fifty one points to Schoolcraft and sixty points in a close loss to Constantine. I’m not sure if they will stop JLC this weekend and to be honest I don’t really care. I just hope the Panthers can score enough to keep pace and have the opportunity to roll the dice a few times to make the game entertaining. I heard early in the year that they were toying with the new analytics out there that suggest to never punt and always onside kick. I’m not sure if this is true, but it is a gamble like that that I’m looking forward to seeing. Watervliet plays a typical spread system that uses a checklist type play calling system to attempt to take advantage of where they think the defense will line up. The offense is set up with wristbands that have all the plays so that they are able to call the play at the line of scrimmage. They typically aren’t a fast paced team but with the wristband system they can push the pace as the choose. Calling plays in this fashion is mainly so that they can play the counting game, how many people are in the box to stop the run? Where do they have the numbers advantage? Because of the counting, game high percentage passing plays are also needed to serve as another type of running play. Watervliet is so efficient with their screens that they should be considered an outside running play. Two screens in particular the bubble screen where an outside receiver or receivers block for their teammate who follows an arc like pattern toward the sideline in an attempt to catch the ball heading downfield; and a jailbreak screen that involves an outside receiver running underneath linemen releasing downfield. There are other names for these screens this is just the way I’ve come accustomed to referring to them. My favorite high percentage play they run is called the mesh where two players close to the formation cross and it often allows a player to emerge out of the wash in an open area. Now just because the Panthers like to throw screens and short routes it does not mean they won’t take a shot down the field. The idea of the spread offense is the attack all areas of the field and they most certainly will throw a deep ball on either a one on one fade or a four verticals type play. Defensively Watervliet usually  touts a 4-4 that switches between man and zone coverages. I expect a heavy run game from JLC and Watervliet’s two losses this year they didn’t have much success in stopping that sort of attack at all.

I say I’m expecting a heavy running attack from JLC but I’m just going off of what I remember, I’m having a tough time finding anything from them this year. From the snippets of film I could gather and based on their old tendencies I’m assuming they are still a single back oriented team. There are several different formations and motion combinations they might use but when it comes down to it they are a single back team. From what I have seen they are mainly a power play team in the mold of the University of Michigan. It is a pretty common offense because of the multiplicity it can display in the area of formations the team can run the same play in several different ways. From shotgun to a heavier I formation the looks change but the overall blocking scheme stays the same. So with that in mind it is no surprise that a serious back like Willis could have fifty carries in one game. This offense is designed to lean on that one dynamic running back while allowing other skill positions to act as a counter to any changes the defense may be forced to make. This year’s main guy is Bo Bell, only one of two returning starters on the Crusader offense. Bell on video looks like an average sized guy but he is fast and always seems to be falling forward. Fast enough to be a threat to break one every time he touches the ball. On defense JLC looks like they run a ton of different looks on defense. I think the base set is a 4-3 that can slide in and out of several different things which might be determined by the offensive formation they are going against or the down and distance of the given play. In the few plays I’ve found I have seen their defense go from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to even something that resembled a 4-2-5. Multiplicity in a defense like this can be tough to run if you don’t have the right personnel for it and substituting in packages can be difficult if the offense doesn’t substitute often, which is common in smaller school football. In my time experimenting with a defense like the 4-2-5 that could have several different looks, we had a difficult time finding safeties that were athletic enough to lay the pass but physical enough to play linebacker like in the box. Which meant we consistently had a person in a position they weren’t fit for based on their skill set. JLC has no problem finding athletes which is why they are able to compete against bigger schools during the season despite being smaller. Take for example 6’6, 260 lbs defensive end and tight end Jonathan Brys who will be one of the best athletes on the field this weekend. It doesn’t matter if he has his hand in the dirt or if he is standing up this guy moves great for such a big defensive end. I have seen in film a few times where the defense will set the strength to him and walk a linebacker up opposite in an under front knowing he will hold the edge. I have also seen them slip him inside to a more tackle like position just to rush the quarterback. He will be the man to watch on defense and I’m curious to see just how disruptive he will be or if will be slowed down at all by the Watervliet screen game.

It is easily an hour and a half hour drive for us to get to Jackson for this game. I have my fingers crossed we can make it there on time Friday to have a pregame meal. This will be the longest we have traveled for a game this year and I couldn’t be more excited. If you are planning on heading that way I’d love to hear from you or if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to leave a comment at the bottom.

The Games

Playoff Time!

Playoff time! After watching the selection show I always like to fill out the playoff bracket March Madness style. I usually stick to just the divisions I thought I knew because of the size of most the schools around me. Believe it or not I don’t know what is happening in the world of football all across the state. It is difficult enough to stay up to date with the local teams let alone how the OK Conference races are shaping up. So for the playoffs this year I figured I would speculate into how the teams I’ve watched might fare this postseason. I don’t enjoy speculating on teams and things I don’t have a real understanding in so even with just sticking to the ones I have seen, I’m reaching on this one. My friends and I hate the scoreboard pickers who seem to make generalizations about teams only based on what the final score ended up. Unfortunately I have to do a little bit of that in this exercise, because of my limited knowledge of the teams beyond Southwest Michigan and the fact I’ve only been able to watch a handful of games. So now that I have fully attempted to discredit myself, here it is.

Starting with division two my teams are Traverse City West who I watched fall to the Benton Harbor Tigers and Portage Central who defeated Matawan way back in week one. Both teams have a cross town rival in their district as Portage Central will tangle with Portage Northern, which if history shows any indication as to how it will play out Portage Central shouldn’t have much of a problem. The only scary thought for the mustangs is that they have already played each other and it is a rivalry game so you never really know. TCW will face Traverse City Central and Central has had West’s number as of late, winning the last three matchups in a row including a hard fought 10-8 victory earlier this year. TCC also poses a threat to Portage Central being that the mustangs lost their only game of the year in week four to TCC 22-38. One other potential snag for these two teams later down the road is Lowell. The Lowell Red Arrows are a force in the playoffs. Last year the Red Arrows lost to Detroit Martin Luther King at Ford Field by a two point conversion and they are more then primed to make it back to the big game this year with their current undefeated record. Other than that I don’t have much of a clue as to if these teams will be able to make a deep playoff run. TCW has the steepest of climbs between the two and their lack of speed will hurt them eventually. I like the athletes Portage displays on defense, but they have somewhat tempered expectations due to a slightly limited pass game. In the games I watched I just don’t feel like they will be able to make enough plays downfield to make a deep run, but I feel strongly that they could win districts. I know so little about the big schools out of Grand Rapids all of this is tough say.
Division three has a rematch of the war by the shore as St. Joseph travels back to Lakeshore. The Lancers beat St. Joe 31-12 in a really lopsided game. It was quite honestly shocking to see how rattled the Bears looked in the first half of that game. St. Joe did have some success late in using some unbalanced formations running their outside zone but that was the only highlight for them all night. It’ll be unique to see what adjustments both teams make for the second game. Those two teams are in the same district as Edwardsburg. Last year Edwardsburg lost to St. Joe after beating Lakeshore, even though Lakeshore beat St. Joe in the regular season. But the Bears are much bigger than the Lancers up front and that gave the Wing T powered Edwardsburg Eddies are really tough time last year from what I was told. So the matchups between the three are pretty unique. Throw in Vicksburg who draws undefeated Chelsea after surprisingly dropping their last game of the regular season to Three Rivers 13-14. The Bulldogs also lost to Edwardsburg earlier in the year but I watched them impressively beat Paw Paw in all phases of the game on a beautiful Friday night in week seven. Vicksburg had a great showing by their quarterback to the point where I might say he has been the best at the position I’ve seen all year. They have a tall order in this Chelsea team and it is unlikely the Bulldogs will make it out of the first round. No matter who rises to the top they will have to play a semifinal game against Muskegon or Zeeland or Grand Rapids Christian or East Grand Rapids. I don’t really follow big school football and I recognize all those names, so yeah, my D3 schools have a nasty road ahead of them.
In division four the Benton Harbor Tigers start with Grand Rapids South Christian. Three Rivers is a spread team having a good year and they are also in that district. Not that a game with Three Rivers would give the Tigers much trouble, I’m not sure Three Rivers has the athletes to match up or the run defense to give them a shot at an upset. Three Rivers lost to Edwardsburg 0-38 and although Benton Harbor won’t be in the Full T they will be a run first team. That is honestly all I know, sadly division four is full of a bunch of teams I’ve never heard of. Sorry.
On to division six to which I’d like to pause from all this speculation and hop on my soapbox for a bit, I hate rematches in the first round of the playoffs. Watervliet, Constantine, and Schoolcraft are in the same district and will play each other at some point which most people would gush over. I know there are a lot of people who love the whole small town rivals meet again storyline but from what I remember for the people involved it isn’t fun at all. I loved making the playoffs in my playing days because each time we played someone new and got a chance to experience something different. New places brings excitement whereas a redo on a game brings, well mostly anxiety. My biggest complaint with the mhsaa playoffs system are these local conference game repeats they set up because of how they create districts. I’m sure schools wouldn’t mind the travel if it meant playing someone new. Quickly my potential solution would be to keep the regions drawn the same and seed out the teams based on playoff points like they would do normally. Eliminate the districts and create new matchups. Sorry about that, I’m done and glad that’s out of my system. The situation has set up the same as last year when Constantine beat the number two ranked Eagles in the playoffs after losing in the regular season to them. I’m not saying it will happen again it is just that the situation is similar. Either way the winner will have either a rematch with Watervliet or perennial power Jackson Lumen Christi. Historically speaking JLC is consistently one of the best teams in the state year in and out and it is awesome to see an area team take them on.
Lastly division seven has Saugatuck starting with some team I’ve never heard of before likely pairing up with Pewamo Westphalia. Saugatuck has been fantastic all year but with their poor conference schedule I would be worried about a lull heading into the playoffs. It is tough to win games by a wide margin week in and out and then be thrust into a serious contest. I’m confident Saugatuck will be prepared but I can imagine it must be a little troublesome. The Pirates have beaten Saugatuck in the playoffs a few times, once back in 2013 and most recently in last years district final 28-38. On top of that the Pirates return Jared Smith, the single season rushing touchdowns record holder which he set last year. It is too bad that an undefeated area team won’t have the opportunity to host a district championship and I’m not sure I will be up for the drive to Pewamo when it happens. Even if Saugatuck advances to the Regional, Traverse City St. Francis will likely be waiting. TCSF lost in last years semifinal to the eventual state champion Ithaca. Ithaca will be in division five for the first time this year.  I would love to follow Saugatuck to Ford Field like we did back in 2010, but this is easily one of the toughest roads of the teams I followed.

Out of the following teams I’d have to say Benton Harbor has the best opportunity to make a major run. I say that because I honestly don’t know any of the teams in that division and Benton Harbor has already beaten some much bigger schools this year. Schoolcraft has the ability to make a run and if they can get out of their district I could easily see them making it to the semifinals and beyond. I’m really rooting for Saugatuck to advance to the state finals, I feel like they were the best team I saw in person this year, but that is a really awful draw for them. I’ve got my fingers crossed for them as I do for all the area teams in the playoffs this year.

The Games

Game 11 Hartford @ Constantine Oct. 21st

I wasn’t sure I would write a blog entry for this week’s game. The last week of the season is exciting for only a select number of teams. Many area teams have their conference champions already crowned just waiting for the season to end and the playoffs to begin. Since most no longer have a crossover or a true end of the year championship game, only those teams with five wins looking for a playoff ticket are feeling a sense of intensity out of desperation. Sadly many teams will be playing hard this week because it will be their last time suiting up for their home team.

There is a feeling that never really goes away, the sting of a vivid memory I suppose and it always surfaces around this time of the year for everyone I’ve ever talked to. For the seven hundred and fifty or so high school teams that play in Michigan, only two hundred and fifty six teams will continue to play beyond this weekend. So for the seniors who have the sudden realization that they will likely never put on a football helmet again late Friday night, it can be a painful moment. I remember wearing my helmet long after getting back home from my last game for the simple reason that I felt most comfortable with my self when wearing it. It wasn’t just a protective piece of equipment, it was my confidence, my sanctuary, my identity up to that point. I knew that when I took my helmet off that day that I would never have the chance to put it back on again. I lost a piece of my self that day. If you find this overly dramatic then I apologize for my inability to convey just how devastating this time is for thousands of people who will never have the opportunity to play such a consuming game again. It took me a long time to come up with an adjective that best fit football, but consuming feels right although by no means is that word all encompassing. Between summer workouts, to practice in the fall, to hours of film study, and every thing in between football eats away at people, grinding those who are truly dedicated only to spit out a better person football consumes people. In the end it leaves a person that must learn to deal with loss.

Football is unique in the sense that when it ends there is no way to replicate it again. Statistics say a high school kid has less than a seven percent chance of playing football in college, so for only a select few the end of the line is constantly approaching. My cousin plays for the local town and even though he is only a junior, I don’t know what the future holds for him. I’m glad that he enjoys football as much as he does and his work ethic is something that I have always been proud of. Still yet he is running out of time and it pains me to think that he like so many others will eventually be without football. So this week my family and I are traveling to Constantine to watch him.  Which is the main reason why I won’t be writing a breakdown of the game this week. The game is secondary for a change.

Football teaches at all times and for many this weekend it will be the hard lesson of how to lose. They will learn to cope in different ways, but if you get the chance find a player you admire and tell them how proud you are of them. It could be a moment that will be so vivid that it will etch itself into their deepest of memories. A moment so genuine and pure it stays with them forever. Be a moment for someone this weekend. With that thank you dad and Coach Shoemaker for using football to teach me to be a better person. Go Luke!

 

The Games

Game 10 Constantine @ Schoolcraft Oct. 14

I’ve been told several times that Constantine playing Schoolcraft is a great rivalry. The word rivalry gets thrown around a lot, in fact way too much. Any sort of hard feelings spices up a game but a few ugly words doesn’t make a rivalry does it? So before breaking down this game, I think it would be best to explore what exactly makes a rivalry? 

Living in Michigan if someone would ask you to name a rivalry game I would have to imagine a high percentage of people would say Michigan v. Ohio State. The Game has several components that go into making a rivalry, first of which being location of the teams. Michigan shares a border with Ohio that has already been a point of conflict. It is so close that the famed old coach Woody Hayes once risked breaking down on a bus trip saying, “We do NOT pull in and fill up. And I’ll tell you exactly why we don’t. It’s because I don’t buy one (expletive) drop of gas in the state of Michigan! We’ll coast and PUSH this (expletive) car to the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money!” (warning the link takes you to an OSU site). The closeness in proximity works well as a base for most rivalries no matter the level of competition as the town’s/states fans usually allow themselves to be sucked into the intensity of the matchup. Constantine is only a few miles from Schoolcraft and it’s probably the closest town they compete against although that wasn’t always the case. Constantine’s high school is literally minutes from White Pigeon High School and the two schools used to battle on the gridiron for the tomahawk trophy. At the time it was one of the longest running matchups at over eighty games, but because of conference realignment it’s over and Schoolcraft is now the Falcons chief foe. Location equals frequency and you can’t have a rival without playing each other several times. I have an unique dislike for Miami and Jimmy Johnson but I wouldn’t really consider those convicts a real rival of Notre Dame anymore. They just don’t play all that often. Whereas Michigan has played Ohio longer than the NFL has been running. Schoolcraft and Constantine have met sixty eight times which includes the two times they played last year. 

Of those many games it’s important to have a little parity in who comes out on top. A matchup that isn’t all square, isn’t a rivalry. There has to be some sort of uncertainty going into the game, upsets and gridlocked battles play up the mystique of the game. Case in point Michigan holds a 58–47–6 record over the people from the south (minus one loss because OSU vacated all wins from 2010). With consistency like that you “throw out the records” when the teams play, because of all the notable upsets that can and will likely occur. Fans of the rivalry will almost always point to Michigan’s upset of the number one ranked Buckeyes in 1969 starting the time period between the two as the ten year war. When the underdog has a chance that’s when magic happens, like last year Constantine beating Schoolcraft in the opening round of the playoffs. Schoolcraft at the time was the undefeated conference champion and surging to end the year having beaten the Falcons 42-24 with a week left in the season. That win for Schoolcraft almost meant knocking their hated rival out of the playoffs for the first time in sixteen years, but Constantine won their final game of the season to make it in as a 5-4 team giving them another shot at Schoolcraft. The game will forever echo in historic lore as Constantine upset the state’s number two ranked Eagles with a field goal in overtime. Fun enough Schoolcraft did the exact same thing to Constantine the year before in 2014, losing their regular season matchup only to win later in the playoffs.  

Which bring us to our last point of emphasis in a rivalry, the game needs to matter. Notre Dame plays USC every year as a major rivalry game. They aren’t geographically close nor are they the teams either have played the most (although they are up there). The battle for the jeweled shillelagh is important because the games have often mattered in terms of a national championship. No time span emphasized that more than the years between 1962-1977 “where there were 7 national championships won by either USC or Notre Dame. And in years like ’64 ’70, ’73, ’77 and ‘88 one team ended the national championship hopes of the other.” Constantine and Schoolcraft are often entangled in playoffs and conference championships. They are two of the premier teams this side of the state. The battle of the birds games matter. 

So finally onto this weeks matchup. I’ve looked into Constantine earlier this season on this site, but to quickly recap you’ll see a true Wing T team. Find the guard on offense and it’ll help you find the ball; but it’s hard to do with the nature of that offense and in the efficiency at which they run it. Schoolcraft is an option team in the mold of double wing teams or flexbone as they are often called, like Army and Navy (speaking of rivalries that’s my number one bucket list game). In this offense the decisions made by the quarterback run like a checklist, one after the other very quickly. You might see a wing go in motion, don’t let him distract you. This is a time where it’s totally ok to follow the ball and stay with the quarterback. Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson breaks this play down fantastically here. The main man for the Eagles is Ricky Clark. He is their Keenan Reynolds and like the navy great is a real threat to run the ball. One of the premiere athletes in the area Ricky will score if he gets loose, he is that fast. What’s unique about this guy though is he can throw really well too. I say unique because if you’ve watched Army or Navy, you would know that throwing the ball usually isn’t a forte of triple option teams, but Ricky Clark has an arm. Schoolcraft likes to go double wing double wide and try to force one on one matchups with usually very tall receivers on the outside. As everyone sucks inside to try and stop the run, Ricky with throw one over the top for a big gain. The ability to pass the ball is what made this team so dangerous last year, because they run the option so effectively you can’t really play both with alignment. If this is on the radio a fun game to play would be to count how many times they say “assignment football” because that’s what both teams offenses essentially put you into. Every potential ball carrier for Schoolcraft has to be accounted for and how does a defense do this without risking losing a battle with a big receiver on the outside. Constantine this year has run an old school fifty defense, that will need to respond in a big way after several weeks of ineptitude. To be quite honest Constantine has been winning shootouts, because of their struggling D. Also defensively watch the purple and gold load the box to gear up for the run. Usually teams facing Constantine will man up the tight ends and put everyone else up close in order to stop the cloud of dust from moving their way. So far this season with the exception of a few games the dust has rolled irregardless of how many people are around the line of scrimmage. 

Before the game I’m going to Bud’s Burgers in Schoolcraft. If you’ve never been you’re missing out on a seriously good burger joint. I’ve been here several times and I’ve never had a bad burger. If you’re feeling feisty get the garbage burger and prepare to undo the button on your pants. I’ll leave you with one more Michigan v. OSU video and this thought: rivalries are built on memories and traditions. Make Friday nights in your home town a family tradition and you’ll forever be rewarded. I’ve got my fingers crossed this will be another prized game I’ll talk about for years to come. 

The Games

Game 9 Vicksburg @ Paw Paw Friday Oct. 7th

This was a tricky week for my dad and I to select a game. Looking at the list of games over the summer nothing really jumped out at us this week, so we decided that it would be best to wait and see how the playoff chase was forming. Six wins guarantee teams a spot in the playoffs and if your team has had a slip up early in the season the heat really gets turned up around week seven. The pressure to get to six wins makes games intense sometimes beyond a select few teams’ conference championship aspirations. At the beginning of every season as a coach you look at the schedule and sort of circle the games you must have if you want to make the playoffs. Everyone wants to win them all but in reality looking at the schedule from an honest and probably harsher point of view, coaches will pick out a handful of games that really make or break the season. 

This week we are going to watch Vicksburg at Paw Paw. Paw Paw has lost three games on the year and need to win out to get to six wins. It’s not to say they won’t make it in if they don’t win out but playing the playoff points game is tricky and you just never know where you are until the state calls you with the good news. Paw Paw lost a game to their conference juggernaut Edwardsburg who is undefeated this year and has already amassed 266 total points on offense for the year. Edwardsburg was favored to win and their wing t offense has rolled over local teams for the past few years now, so it wasn’t much of a surprise. The other two losses came against similar offensive style teams in Three Rivers and Sturgis. Three Rivers is having a great year only one win away from the playoffs, while Sturgis is a middle of the road team this year and unlikely to make the postseason. It’s unique to point out that these teams are spread teams a moniker that used to highlight Paw Paw’s offense, but not any more. This is the first year of Paw Paw’s new look under head coach Matt Stephens who was also the head coach for Mattawan and Bangor high schools. Matt Stephens has pulled in the reigns on the spread formations and locked his kids into the old wing t. It feels as though I have talked about the wing t to the point of exhaustion on this website and yet here it is again. I think the thing I’m looking forward to seeing most with Paw Paw in this game is the players and fans reception to a ground based attack that while deceptive, it isn’t always the most fan friendly. I’ve seen even the oldest of wing t fans sit through a Friday night and never have the slightest idea who had the ball. It’s tough to cheer for a touchdown that you didn’t see. Or better yet the fan that is used to a spread team that throws the ball more times in one game then a wing t team likely might attempt in an entire season. It’s going to be unique to see how the players respond from a system that breathes open space to one that creates it in even the slimmest of spaces. Irregardless of what they do on offense, Paw Paw still plays good defense and in two of their losses they held their opponent to just fourteen points, but their offense struggled. I’m having a difficult time finding videos of Paw Paw this year and or old Mattawan games from when Stephens was there, but according to a great article written in the Paw Paw Courier Leader, Stephens plans to run a 3-5-3 defense which is really geared to stopping spread teams like Vicksburg. 

Vicksburg has only lost one game this year and it was to Edwardsburg, a team that runs the same offense as Paw Paw. It was exceptionally difficult to find any footage of Vicksburg playing defense against a wing t team. The fact I waited so long to select a game for this week probably didn’t help my chances of finding a video either. Wing t teams often force defenses to alter their look a bit and load the box in hopes of stopping the run. I can’t imagine the Bulldogs will be any different. Without the video though I can’t really say how Vicksburg will line up on D other than there will likely be a lot of people close to the line of scrimmage. On offense they will come out in a gun or pistol look with two or more wide outs almost all the time. The pistol formation is the one I like most when watching them because of the quickness their running backs show straight ahead. I especially like one particular play that is a complimentary play off of a straight dive look where the quarterback pulls the ball and follows a pulling lineman that logs the last defender on the line of scrimmage, enabling the qb to run around the end. I find it unique that instead of trapping the end defender the offense anticipates the D collapsing on the running back and making their ability to contain the ball vulnerable by going too far inside. It is a wonderful play that is a staple in pistol offenses and it is one that has been highlighted on this site before, when I discussed the uniqueness of Muskegon Mona Shores pistol offense. 

The game should be close and intense with a trip to the playoffs on the line. Paw Paw coach Matt Stephens is also an alumni of Vicksburg and although that isn’t going to impact the game at all, it adds a colorful bit of flare to the game for fans. 

I’ll be eating at Amore Pizza before the game. It’s really good pizza and I’ve always enjoyed myself when eating there. I apologize for the short write up this week, but being pressed for time it and having a surprising lack of resources it was the best I could do. If you have a question I would love to answer it in the comments section or if you’re out in Paw Paw this Friday don’t be shy. 

The Games

Game 8 Traverse City West @ Benton Harbor Sept. 30th

I’ve been to Benton Harbor’s football field a few times in my life, but only once for football. When I was a senior in high school we traveled there to play Lake Michigan Catholic. Catholic doesn’t have a football field of their own so they have always made do with surrounding schools, that particular Friday their home field was over the bridge in Benton Harbor. The field was having a rough fight with a grub or something from what I remember, making the turf very loose. So loose to the point where I distinctly remember my friend Jamin holding up a large chunk like a piece of carpet that had just slipped out from under him during our warm up. Probably unfairly that has been the lasting image in my mind when thinking of Benton Harbor football. I’m sure you know the field is no longer in disrepair and neither are the Tigers for that matter. For a team and city whose struggles have been well documented, last year’s magical season was just what they needed. I recently attended a clinic and listened to Elliot Uzelac speak about last year and even in his stories it’s hard to believe. Makes you wonder when Disney will make that movie, seriously. For those that might not know about this story, ESPN did a great feature on them and it’ll get you up to speed (ESPN). 

Turning the attention to the product of the field it’s a little odd to write about this game, because I have talked so much about Uzelacs offense in a previous post when discussing the St. Joe Bears run game. To quickly recap, Uzelac teams run the outside zone. The best way to visualize zone plays is to pretend all of the offense live linemen are on a train track. They all move the same direction and if anything gets on their track they block it. If the linemen can gain the defenders outside shoulder then he works to pin him inside, if not he continues to push out stretching the defense. Eventually the runningback finds his own hole. The outside zone is a staple run in the NFL but can be difficult for high school kids to run. It demands offensive linemen to be able to move laterally and some of the blocks that are required can be super difficult, so the Uzelac spin on this came a long time ago and ultimately helps the line take advantage of angles while still maintaining the overall integrity of the play. The wrinkle is called pin and pull. One lineman blocks down and the other pulls around easier blocks for both. This being a blocking scheme can be used out of multiple formations

Benton Harbor already had a good running back in Jeremy Burrell who will be a senior this year, but they also added transfer Darius Clayton who looked fantastic for the St. Joe Bears last year. It was fun to see the change in the Tigers raw product offensively at our scrimmage last year to what they were able to run at the end of the season.
Defensively Benton Harbor last year had to be very basic due to coach Uzelac being hired late in the year, he really only had time to install an offense. Moreover most new coaches will often pick one side of the ball to install in their first offseason in an effort to not overload their players. Thinking players can be slow players and no one wants that. The 4-4 they ran is great because it’s an easy to learn run stopper with eight men in the box. I’m curious to see if they add any new looks to their 4-4 defense from last year which did a great job of swarming to the ball (watch last year’s highlight of their win over Lakeshore, their first win over the Lancers since 1984, and you’ll see what I mean). The 4-4 defense is an old scheme that’s still more prevalent than say a true fifty front defense (not a three man front that becomes a fifty, but a fifty run with the old personnel meant to stop the run), but spread offenses and elaborate formations have made it difficult to maintain somewhat. The defenses of old were built to stop the run and deal with the pass. Now that offenses gear themselves up with pass formations while looking for over adjustments in order to run the ball, defensive dinosaurs are often revamped to survive. 

Enter the much larger school, division two, Traverse City West who can run a couple of different looks on offense. In the videos I’ve seen (they were from a senior heavy team last year that under achieved so you’ll have to take this with a grain of salt) they have the ability to go from a double tight full T team to a shotgun spread look, with some in between. I think it’s sort of a misnomer that people assume plays are the hardest things for a defensive coach to plan for when in reality it’s the formations. Reads and rules are generally the same when a play starts but where a person lines up before the action is a serious ordeal. I once listened to a very intense Michigan State coach explain the alignment assignments against various formations in their 4-3 defense for well over an hour. Meticulous would be an understatement in describing to the finest detail where he wanted linebackers to line up. The shifting of formations changes the character of the offense and it forces player decisions on the defensive side. Defensive linemen that can generally with stopping a power run team aren’t always the best runners and that makes it difficult to keep them on the field against space crating spread teams that emphasize that. Two formations that Traverse City West runs that I’m particularly interested in seeing Benton Harbor adjust to in an unbalanced T formation and a simple trips look. These are decision making offensive formations that create a plus one if unadjusted. Plus one meaning if you were to draw the offensive formation and then add a vertical line down the center cutting the formation in half, how many players are on either side of the ball? If one side has more than one and the defense doesn’t adjust there’s your plus one. As a junior varsity play caller it was fun to see how many I could add to the point of attack with out the opposing defense adjusting (shifting, motions, pulling linemen, any sort of lead blocker all do this). So will BH shift their linemen to account for the extra gap created when facing the unbalanced line? Many teams won’t move if they feel the short side of the formation is exposed in the process. Lots add a man to the box on that side especially if they don’t have a wideout. I feel it’s best to have linebackers mirror the backfield in those instances and by adding a guy they can. If the BH kids recognize it in time, always a big key there) I imagine they will slide. 

The other formation can be trickier. Trips is not fun for defensive people and there are talks being given all the time on how teams should adjust to it. The question that starts the conversation for me is how does the offense want to use the formation? Can they throw the ball or for the matter even have the intention to throw it? I found it slightly comical while calling plays how much attention a sudden pass formation could garner, even when our team hadn’t attempted a pass yet. So if I feel like that team throwing the ball isn’t particularly threatening I’ll most likely have the defense ignore it as best we can. Slide a linebacker that way maybe a few feet, call their potential bluff, and go from there. If the team can, will, and wants to throw the ball then the can of worms spills out all over the place. Who do you move that way? Walk a safety that way and an outside linebacker type player (the case for BH in their 4-4) and you might lose an edge player. Most spread teams love to run to a wide trips side because that’s where the space is created. Worse yet in losing the safety you’ve now created essentially man to man coverage for the cornerback opposite the trips. I’ve seen some teams walk a middle backer out to the extra receiver and keep their safety over the top, which is a move most often used in an obvious passing down. You can’t do it for the whole game because the lack of manpower in the box will likely get your team run over (the number of offensive players in the box versus the number of defensive players shouldn’t ever be more than one at best). The increase in wide receiver plays have also made the formation rough to manage because the numbers game is once again played. Most people I’ve heard talk on the subject of taking away screens use their alignment to take away the play. Line up right on top of the three receivers and most teams won’t run the screen, but what they did do was firmly take a player away from the ball. BH often runs a safe secondary coverage called cover three where three people are responsible to stay deeper than anyone on the field. You can still run this against trips but it puts a lot of pressure on linebackers being to decipher the play and acting accordingly because of all the space created. BH has the athletes to take the safety out of the middle and run man to man coverage across the board if they are truly afraid of the pass which I don’t think they should be, even though running with no safety isn’t exactly my cup of tea. It requires athletes capable and even then it’s unlikely to have a mistake free game. Mistakes in man to man usually mean long touchdowns, but I’m not sure people are running away from some of the athletes BH has out there. From what I’ve seen I think TCW wants to establish a running game anyway but this is just one of the fun things I’m looking forward to watching. 

The best food in Benton Harbor is probably Larks BBQ. I’ve had it a few times out of their food truck and have always been satisfied. I love BBQ, honestly if you find me at either place and would like to engage in a serious BBQ conversation I will be all for it. I hope to see a reader out there, enjoy your Friday.