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Comets, Mustangs expect standard defensive struggle

Another classic?

Newman's Dillan Heffelfinger fights for yards during Saturday's win over Bureau Valley. The Comets host rival Morrison in a key Three Rivers North game on Friday.
Newman's Dillan Heffelfinger fights for yards during Saturday's win over Bureau Valley. The Comets host rival Morrison in a key Three Rivers North game on Friday.

For a majority of the past decade, the marquee game of each regular season – and some of the postseasons – has been Newman versus Morrison.

And while the hype for the 2013 installment of the classic rivalry hasn't been the same thanks to heavy losses due to graduation in both programs, both the Comets and Mustangs expect another knock-down, drag-out fight Friday night at Roscoe Eades Stadium.

"It's Morrison, so when you line up across from them, you know they'll come at you hard," Newman senior quarterback A.J Sharp said. "We know we're going to have to put in 100 percent every snap, and whichever team execute better has the better chance of winning."

Unlike most weeks when the offense gets most of the attention, it always seems to take a back seat in this matchup.

Instead, it's whichever defense stops the opposing offense from executing that has historically come out on top.

"Our main focus is defense, and I know Newman feels the same way," Morrison coach Cory Bielema said. "Defense comes first, and we're looking at how we can do our best to shut them down and create turnovers. We want to get our defense off the field, then have the offense help out by moving the ball and winning field position."

"Field position" was also one of the first words out of Newman coach Mike Papoccia's mouth when talking about the upcoming contest.

"Field position is going to be a big deal, and to me that means special teams and defense," Papoccia said. "Whatever gives you a short field, that's what you're looking for, because the shorter the field, the easier it is to score; it's simple math."

Both coaches agree that their teams are still searching a bit for their identity, but both also have seen some strides in the right direction.

Newman has bounced back nicely after a Week 1 loss, hammering Princeton (61-7) and Bureau Valley (34-6) the past 2 weeks.

Jake Snow is fifth in the area in rushing with 261 yards, to go with five touchdowns, while Elliot Jensen (112 yards, TD), Dillan Heffelfinger (97 yards, 3 TDs), Nolan McGinn (86 yards, TD) and Brady Rude (77 yards) provide balance in the ground game. Sharp has thrown for 263 yards and two scores on 15-for-25 passing, while Shayne Allen (87 yard TD) and Snow (79 yards, TD) leading the way with four catches each.

"Newman is one of the best teams in the state every season; their fourth-string backfield could start for most teams," Bielema said. "We have four backs total, but our limited numbers mean all of our guys have played plenty of football. We're going to have to focus on what we can do to control the game, and hopefully have a shot in the fourth quarter."

Those limited numbers have meant some inconsistency, and the scores have reflected that. The Mustangs opened with a 46-0 thrashing of Princeton, then dropped a 50-0 decision at the hands of Orion. But like the Comets, Morrison bounced back with a hard-fought 8-7 victory in the Wooden Shoe Bowl against Fulton in Week 3.

Austin Schoup (125 yards) and Mason Sitzmore (109 yards, 2 TDs) lead the rushing attack, while Ryan Mayberry (6 catches, 99 yards, TD), Andy Bird (5 catches, 26 yards) and Noah Blacklock (4 catches, 60 yards) led the receiving corps. Sitzmore (2-for-6 passing, 42 yards, TD, INT) filled in at quarterback last week for starter Joey Brackemyer (14-for-19, 215 yards TD), who sat out with a concussion; Brackemyer is day-to-day and will be a game-day decision Friday.

"Morrison is trying to find what works for them, just like us, and I think we're both getting close to it," Papoccia said. "I'm sure Cory is really motivating those kids – he always gets the most out of his players – and they've certainly turned a corner."

Both teams are concerned with matching the others' physicality and emotion, and are focusing on mistake-free football – "Giving free yards to Newman equals a death sentence," Bielema said – to make the other guys earn everything they get.

And while Newman will stick to what it's done best for the past 3 decades, Bielema says the Comets are "too good, too fast, too well-coached" for the Mustangs to do just one thing and say "here we come, stop us," for four quarters.

Above all, both teams realize the best case scenario is to grab the momentum quickly and hang on to it for dear life. Both are looking for that first score and an early lead.

"When we get stops right away and put points on the board early, it makes everybody's job easier," Sharp said. "On both sides of the ball, we're just going to do our jobs and get to the spots where we need to be to make plays. That's how we'll be successful."

Close calls

• Over the last decade, the Comets lead the series with the Mustangs 8-5, but Morrison owns a 2-1 record in three playoff meetings. Three of the last five games have been decided by 3 points, and Newman has outscored Morrison by an average of 16-10 (205-134) over 13 meetings the last 10 years.

Morrison (2-1, 1-0 TRAC North) at Newman (2-1, 1-0)

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium, Sterling

Radio: 102.7 FM

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