BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The Knoxville Panthers are first up in the state’s whipped up “pod” playoff system in the 2020 Iowa high school football season – brought to you by COVID-19.
The Panthers come to Jim Youel Field on Friday sporting a shy 1-6 record with the only win coming against Keokuk in week 2 – a win that’s not lost on Fort Madison Head Coach Derek Doherty.
“I’ve said this all year, but if I firmly believe that anyone that beats Keokuk is a good football team,” Doherty said.
“From what we know and have seen, Knoxville is a team that got banged up early and got bitten by the injury bug, but they have proven they are a good football team.”
On paper, the Panthers like to come out you on the ground with a physical run game championed by sophomore Gavin Montalvo, who has over 350 yards on 56 carries, averaging over five yards per attempt.
Doherty said schematically, Knoxville compares to a West Burlington team that will run wild plays out of the backfield.
“They do some crazy stuff to make it hard for you to prepare for them in a week, but I believe this is a team that is getting better and better,” he said.
“We’ve been getting in our kids ears that we have to train for the best. We have to bring our A game. If we bring our B game anybody can beat us. But when we bring the A game we’re tough to beat. “
The Panthers are lead by senior quarterback Kieren Nichols who’s completing just over 40% of his passes, but has four picks to go against three TDs on the year – a stat that probably has Fort Madison’s secondary itching to suit up.
The Hounds have 12 INTs on the year, including five from senior Will Larson. Three of those have been returned for scores. Larson is 3rd in the state in Class 3A with those five picks.
As a matter of fact, the Hounds have quite a few players with the FM logo on the state leaders mark. Senior Brock Califf is first in the state in kickoff returns for touchdowns and 3rd overall in return yards. Tate Johnson is second in the state in defensive touchdowns and placekicker Xander Wellman holds second place in Class 3A with four field goals and is fifth in PAT attempts and points.
Doherty said the achievements of the Bloodhounds this year is a result of training and foundation. He said former Coach Tony Shiffman started laying the foundations of this program four years ago. That coupled with players commitment to athletic enhancement has brought the program into the light.
“I think you have to look at in parts. Coach Shiffman laid a foundation and then you see what an Alex Gully was able to do while we rebuilt, but then a lot of this is done in the dark at 6:30 in the morning when it’s cold,” Doherty said.
“From the outside this may look like a fluke, but we think different.”
In the other game in the four-team Pod 11, District 7’s Grinnell and Newton are facing off. The winners of the two games will meet next week at a site to be determined.
Doherty said he wasn’t sure what the state was thinking putting those four teams in the same pod. But he’s happy the Hounds are playing this week rather than getting one of the 11 byes handed out in Class 3A.
Each of the nine district winners were given byes, and then two other teams, both from District 1, Spencer and Sergeant Bluff-Luton were also given byes, which means three teams in that 6-team district were given byes, joining Boyden Hull/Rock Valley.
The Bloodhounds were ranked 9th in the final Des Moines Register Poll and 12th in the final AP poll, both ahead of all three of the District 1 teams with byes.
But Doherty said he’d rather be playing Friday than sitting out.
“We were split as a coaching staff as we talked about it. Some said we’d take a bye, but I want to play. I hate waiting. The week is super long to me – and Friday, the pregame stuff, it just kills me. I want to get to 7 o’clock and go,” Doherty said.
“I don’t know what the state is looking at sometimes. I really truly wonder what they’re looking at with different decisions. But it’s certainly different being in my chair down here and not dealing with those.
“I guess the mentality we’re trying to push across is that this is business as usual. We’re gonna stick with the recipe that’s worked fairly well for us. Normal practices all the way until Friday.”
Part of the recipe includes an offense that has settled in with Landes Williams calling the snaps and making reads. Williams has accounted for 18 TDs this year since coming in to start in the fourth game against Keokuk.
Williams has 10 throwing scores to three different receivers and has rushed for eight more.
Another ingredient in the recipe is an opportunistic defense that has scored five touchdowns in seven games and a special teams squad that has accounted for 58 points, 40 from Wellman on PATs and field goals, and 3 TDs from Califf off kick returns.
Calem Maclearn has established himself as the featured running back with 291 yards on 41 carries for 7.1 yards per attempt. But offensive coordinator Justin Menke isn’t afraid to give the ball to a bevy of runners as the Hounds have five backs with more than 10 carries on the year.
Doherty said moving Menke to the booth this year and putting him in charge of the offense has produced results.
“He’s very reactionary. He looks at what’s happening and the vision he has in the booth with Patrick (Lamb) generates ideas that get relayed down to us, but I’ve been happy with the change there,” Doherty said.
“He puts a smile on my face because he’ll walk in the door and say, ‘I’ve been thinking…’ and I love that. He’s adding his wrinkles and its making more and more sense to him, which is the important thing.”
Doherty also said the linemen are the unheralded heroes in the mix.
“That’s a great group of guys led by two awesome men in Coach (Josh) Wykert and Coach (Ryan) Smith,” Doherty said.
“Skill players get their names in the paper, but these guys are the ones beat up and dirty and underappreciated. You look at our guys and they move they’re smart, and they adapt, which is a bit innate but is also coached up.”
The game at Richmond Field starts at 7 p.m. Friday and because it’s a state playoff game passes will not be accepted and entry is $6 per person. Masks are still required when social distancing cannot be observed.