Morrison and Kirkland Hiawatha both prefer the ground as their main mode of transportation on a football field.
They will put that to the test on Saturday when they tee it up for a second-round Class 1A playoff game at Bud Cole Field in Morrison.
Hiawatha (9-1) relies heavily on Kyle Thompson, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior running back. In nine games (the Hawks received a forfeit in Week 5 vs. Varna-Midland), he has rushed 202 times for 1,603 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Morrison linebacker Nathan Mickley noted Thompson compares favorably with Niko Zarlatanes, a workhorse running back for Rockridge.
“He did a number on us, but we were able to shut him down eventually,” Mickley said. “We should go in with the same mindset we had against [Zarlatanes], and we should be able to shut [Thompson] down.”
Ty Kilcullen is Hiawatha’s second-leading rusher with 36 carries for 325 yards and five scores.
The quarterback is Matthew Korb, who has completed 83 of 129 passes for 1,290 yards and 18 touchdowns, with five interceptions. His top targets are Kilcullen (41-668, 13 TDs), Thompson (14-205, 3 TDs) and Austin Brantley (14-309, 2 TDs).
“They’ve got some nice athletes,” Morrison coach Ryan Oetting said. “[Thompson] is the one with all the yardage, but [Kilcullen] looks like a good athlete, and they can throw the ball a little bit too. The quarterback’s got a nice arm. They’re pretty well-balanced, so we’re expecting to have to play some good defense again.”
Hiawatha averaged 48.4 points this season. The only time it was held below 40 was in a 41-35 loss against Ottawa Marquette in Week 3.
If the Hawks have been an unstoppable force, the Mustangs (10-0) have been an immovable object. Morrison has allowed a mere 47 points, and one or no scores in nine of 10 games.
The Mustangs are blessed with great speed in the back seven, but Mickley noted the key has been the play in the trenches. A rotation of defensive tackles Cooper Darby, Thomas Schlafer and Tyler Schambaugh and ends Justice Imel, Riley Wilkens and Collin Roberts allow the back seven to do their thing.
“It all starts with our interior linemen up front,” Mickley said. “They’re big, they plug holes, and they get the job done. Then our linebackers and DBs can fly around and fill the gaps they didn’t plug up. We’re a gap-control defense, so we can usually get the ball stopped quickly.”
The 290-pound Schambaugh and 285-pound Schlafer give the Mustangs a big edge in size.
"They've got some real big kids on the D-line who are pretty fast, too," Hiawatha coach Jason Keneway said. "It's definitely a point of emphasis for us this week. But they've got great team size and speed. Hopefully we'll be able to move the ball and put up some points."
Putting points on the board has not been a problem for Morrison, as the Mustangs have racked up 341 through 10 games. The running game is balanced with Hunter Newman (82-702, 4 TDs), Wilkens (115-628, 13 TDs) and Keegan Anderson (53-514, 7 TDs) sharing the load.
“I feel like they can’t really key on anybody, and we can go any way with it,” Newman said. “It they stop one, we have another to go against it.”
Nate Helms has also shown he can throw the ball, making Morrison that much more dangerous on offense. Helms has completed 39 of 67 passes for 804 yards, with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
As far as playoff pedigrees go, the teams are opposites. Hiawatha is making its fifth appearance and it had one win, in the first round against Durand in 1987, to its credit before beating Abingdon-Avon 44-6 last week. The Hawks lost 48-0 to Forreston last season in the first round.
"I know this team is 10-0, obviously better than us, but I think we can overcome these odds and come up with a win," Hiawatha offensive lineman/linebacker Jacob Smith said. "No one really thought we'd win this first game because of our past, so our confidence is really boosted."
Morrison, meanwhile, is in the playoffs for the 25th time, with a record of 30-22 highlighted by state titles in 2009 and 2011.
“Watching the state teams growing up was awesome,” Newman said, “and knowing now we have a chance to do the same thing, it’s really fun.”
After a first-round playoff loss in 2012, Morrison missed the playoffs for 6 straight years before this season. Oetting’s message has been to enjoy the ride.
“We talked last week about being one of the lucky 256, and now we’re into that next round that still gets to come out here,” Oetting said at Tuesday’s practice. “We tell the kids to cherish it, especially the seniors, because you never know when it’s going to end. It’s pretty exciting. The community has been very supportive, the staff, the school, my family – everything’s been going well. We’re trying to build something here, and hopefully this is just the jumping off point.”
1A playoffs, second round
Hiawatha Hiawatha at Morrison
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Were: Bud Cole Field