Having defeated Orion in Week 3, the Newman Comets might have learned some lessons on how to handle the Chargers in Saturday’s Class 2A quarterfinal playoff game.
But it’s not necessarily X’s and O’s that the Comets gleaned from the first meeting, a 35-21 Three Rivers Rock victory on the road.
“They’re a big, strong, physical team, and they beat us up pretty good,” Newman junior lineman Drew Ackman said. “And they don’t give up. We were up 35-7 after three quarters, and they just kept battling and kept battling, so you’ve got to respect them.”
Newman (11-0) was without five defensive starters in the second half of that game, including Easton Bianchi and Luke Olson, who are also starting running backs.
It was also the first time this season the Comets had dealt with a spread attack, and Orion (9-2) started to move the ball through the air over the final 12 minutes to mount its comeback.
But that was more than 2 months ago, and as one would expect, both teams are a bit different than they were back on September 8.
“They’re very well-coached, and they’ve gotten better since we played them in Week 3,” Newman coach Mike Papoccia said. “But we think we have too, and I think these last two games really helped us as well. I think we’re better against the pass now. We played some pretty good defense against some pretty good athletes, so I think the kids’ confidence is much higher than it was in Week 3.”
That confidence stems from back-to-back wins over strictly spread offenses from Aurora Christian and Chicago Hope Academy.
Sure, both teams passed for more than 200 yards, but Newman picked off three passes while holding Hope to 11.5 points fewer than its season average, and held Aurora Christian to 15.2 points fewer than its average.
Orion mixes in some spread looks with the more familiar wishbone and I formations, and the Comets hope the last 2 weeks have prepared them for the former – as the regular season did for the latter.
“I think we’re a lot more comfortable with the spread now than we were in Week 3,” said Ackman, who returns this week after suffering a knee injury in Week 8. “And of course, it’s a lot more comfortable going against our own offense, the wishbone, I formation, stuff like that. Like every week, we just have to stick to our assignments. Our coaches preach it every week, day in and day out, just follow our keys and we should be fine.”
Orion has a balanced attack, led on the ground by Sam West (1,116 yards, 18 TDs) and Seth West (1,058 yards, 14 TDs), and through the air by Dawson Schulenberg (95-for-195 passing, 1,450 yards, 16 TDs, 3 INTs). Iowa signee Logan Lee (26 catches, 442 yards, 8 TDs) and Noah Anderson (22 catches, 345 yards, 2 TDs) are Schulenberg’s favorite targets.
“Very diverse offensively, run a lot of different sets and they’ve got some really good offensive players, I think their quarterback is what really makes them tick,” Papoccia said. “They just don’t make mistakes. You don’t see them fumbling, you don’t see them throwing interceptions, so that’s the biggest thing we’ll probably have to overcome, is trying to get some turnovers out of them, shorten the field as much as we can; we hope our special teams can help out in that regard, too.”
Newman counters with its traditional run-heavy attack. Easton Bianchi has reached the 1,000-yard mark (1,161 yards, 20 TDs) while averaging 11.1 yards per carry, and Cade Gorzny (857 yards, 7 TDs), Olson (636 yards, 12 TDs), Landen Vesley (242 yards, 4 TDs) and Chase Graham (139 yards, 6 TDs) all average more than 5 yards per carry.
Vesley has thrown for 483 yards on 23-for-49 passing, with eight touchdowns and one interception, with seven different receivers catching passes.
Lee, who won the Class 1A state title at 220 pounds in his first year of wrestling last winter, leads a stout Orion defense that is giving up just 11 points per game while the offense averages 38.
“Their defense is good, especially with Logan Lee, but we’re just going to stick to our jobs, do it 100 percent, and just play Newman football,” said Vesley, who threw for 103 yards on 4-for-6 passing last week against Hope. “It’s hard to beat a team twice in a season, but I feel confident going in. This is my fourth year going through this, and I feel confident that we’re prepping well and we’ll be ready. We’ve just got to execute and we’ll be fine.”
Papoccia has warned his players against the traps of what he calls the hardest game of the playoff run. With two wins under their belts and still two more after this if they want to take home the state title, this is the week where players can often have their minds wander a little bit.
“What are you playing for? You’ve got a chance to go on, but this one’s a little harder to get the kids up for,” Papoccia said. “The first round is ‘All right, here we go!’ The second round is ‘Oh, that was fun.’ The third game, are you thinking about winter sports, have you had enough of football? It’s two wins to state, not one, so there’s still a tough road ahead even if you win this game.
“But these kids have been very focused since we started, and being home is going to be nice again. We’ll just put it on the line and see what happens.”
Class 2A quarterfinals
Orion at Newman
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium, Sterling
Radio: 102.7 FM, 107.7 FM