BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The Bloodhounds have shown their B game a couple times this year, but at 7-1 with the only loss coming to No. 5 Washington six weeks ago, the A-game has regularly been on display.
Fort Madison travels to Grinnell (6-2) Friday for the title game of Pod 11 after downing Knoxville 45-7 in the first week of Class 3A post season football. The Tigers knocked off Newton 44-23 last week.
Grinnell features one of the state’s top running backs in senior Wyatt Hunter. Hunter is closing in on 2,000 yards and has 28 touchdowns for the year, and makes up the majority of the Tigers offense.
“He’s obviously a sturdy kid and I’m sure he’s put in a ton of work,” said Hounds defensive coordinator Jason Crooks. “But as Coach (Ryan) Smith says, ‘don’t put anyone on a pedestal’.”
The Hounds are allowing 145 yards rushing per game this year on average, but are only giving up 12 points per game. Washington has scored the most points against the Hounds defense in week 3 with 29. The rest of the schedule has been held under two touchdowns.
Head Coach Derek Doherty said it’s no secret Grinnell’s a solid football team. The Tigers only losses have come to Class 3A’s top-ranked Cedar Rapids Xavier and a top-5 team in Harlan.
“They’ve been tested. Xavier and Harlan, those are two really good games. But we’ve seen Washington, so we feel like we’ve been battle-tested and we obviously have our regrets how that went and how we played against them,” Doherty said.
“That was more mental than anything. But lesson learned and a lot of epiphanies by our guys. We flushed it and moved on.”
Doherty said the Hounds were up against some adversity last week in the first quarter but regrouped. He said that adversity will serve them well as the post-season continues.
“We learned that the thing this coaching staff has been preaching is we’re not good enough to show up with our B+ game. They got caught on their heels and they realized at halftime we needed to bring our A game.”
Junior quarterback Landes Williams came on strong after the first quarter throwing for a couple touchdowns and running for another. He has combined for 21 TDs after moving in as QB in week 4.
Fort Madison has looked to senior Calem Maclearn out of the backfield, while Williams moves in the pocket and will throw to just about anyone. His 12 TD passes have gone to three wideouts, led by classmate Tate Johnson who has seven on the year.
The game will be restricted attendance due to COVID, but Doherty said he’s not concerned about the environment on the road.
“At the end of the day it’s high school football. The field doesn’t change in length or width and the game is still played the same,” he said. “You can’t let that stuff get to you… That’s what I love about these guys and this staff, they don’t care, let’s just go play football.”
Offensive coordinator Justin Menke went a step further and called it a business trip.
“We’ve been really focused all year long. It helps we’re senior and junior driven and these kids have been in here three and four years now and they know what it’s about. And it’s a business trip.”
The Hounds could again be facing a larger front offensively and defensively. The Tigers are anchored on the line by seniors Dodge Sauser and Michael Norenberg. Sauser is one of two sons of Head Coach Brian Sauser. His other son Dallas is the Tiger’s starting quarterback.
But the size dynamic is something the Hounds have faced all year long.
“I feel like every Friday we’ve walked out there and you line up our kids across from the other kids and were never the bigger team,” Menke said. “But I’d argue that most of the time were the faster, stronger, and more disciplined team and at this level of football that’s more important.”
Crooks said the past few years have been all about technique and passion on the lines.
“Teams are usually bigger than us, but going on two years now Coach Doherty has been teaching fundamentals and being the better football player, and that’s what were focusing on this week in practice,” he said.
Sauser has thrown TDs to five different receivers, including 6’8″ Owen Coffman who has three scores and averages 13 yards per catch. But his favorite target may be Kyle Dillon who can be a game breaker averaging 28.2 yards per reception and has five TDS, the longest from 72 yards out.
The Hounds will match up well there however, with a secondary that’s picked off 12 passes and returned three for touchdowns. Fort Madison has given up only four TD passes this season, two to Fairfield two weeks ago.
Crooks said Grinnell will try some trick plays and do some different things with 2 point conversions, but at this point in the year they’ve seen a lot of that.
“What I like about our kids is that they know what we do and we just let them run it. They just have to be mentally ready.”
Doherty said his players have been wanting the bigger challenges all year
“We wanted a tough game and here we are. So let’s go see where we’re at.”