While the hoopla and excitement for Friday’s can’t-miss Big Eight showdown is hitting a crest, all the coaches and players really want is another mark in the win column come Saturday morning.
While Jonesville and Reading run different offenses and one has a battle-tested veteran at the helm and the other a rookie head coach, both coaches agree it’s the battles in the trenches and the numbers in the turnover column that will have the biggest impact.
For the Comets it comes down to controlling the ball, staying with their assignments for a full 48 minutes — and of course, attempting to shut down one of the region’s best runners in Reading halfback Brian Rauth.
Rauth has already run for 787 yards and scored a total of 14 touchdowns in four contests, all while averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
Reading head coach Rick Bailey said what makes Rauth so dangerous is his ability to see the entire field and set up blocks as a play evolves, something Jonesville coach Josh Lindeman said appears to be as good as advertised after watching some film.
“Our kids just want to compete, but we told our linebackers and our defensive ends and our safeties that they have to make tackles in space on Rauth. He’s one of the best in the state of Michigan for a reason, and usually if you miss a tackle, he takes it to the house,” he said. “In practice we’re really stressing team tackling, pursuing to the ball and if for some reason (Rauth) is able to miss a tackle, we (want) to corral him and slow him down a little bit.”
Lindeman said it helps that his defense is practicing against skilled backs like their own John Sigler, Dominic Mulkey, Josh Blonde, Kory Kidder, Trevor Kelley and Brandon Jenkins, but he admits it might not quite be the same.
“We know Rauth is a different monster, obviously, our kids know that and we’re not shying away from the fact that if we stop him we feel we can compete in the game and if we don’t it’s shown that when he’s rolling they’re one of the best teams in the state,” he said. “At least our backs have given us something somewhat comparable to (Rauth.)”
Bailey said Rauth might be the best halfback he’s had at “making cuts on the inside” and it’s easy to just keep handing the ball off to him, but he isn’t afraid to utilize Matt VanNuys and Billy Julian back there as well.
Julian, a transfer from Edon, Ohio already has six touchdowns on the year and he and VanNuys offer a little more power in the rushing attack.
Jonesville senior Evan Lobdell said it’s not unusual to see so many talented players on the Rangers roster, but he feels he and his teammates are at least up to snuff this year.
“Reading’s got good athletes year in and year out, but we have some great athletes this year — Sigler, Kelley, all our backs are great and our line is great and our defense is doing awesome,” he said. “I think we’re just ready for them this year.”
One thing Bailey has been working on getting his own team ready for is Jonesville’s T-formation offense, a set that looks an awful lot like the one that caused them so much trouble in a state semifinals loss to Ubly in 2008.
Sigler is by all means the number one option in the Comets rushing attack, and he already has 453 yards on the ground and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, on both runs and receiving routes. Coupled with the sheer quickness of Kelley and the knock-’em-down, run-’em-over mentality of Kidder the Comets have found a way to wear teams out and control the time of possession the last two contests.
Bailey said he’s very aware of that and he’s been game-planning to make that a difficult task come Friday.
“They’ve got good size up front so they’re playing the physical brand of football, it’s a nice combination to have. I think they’ve probably had a 70-yard touchdown run in all of their games, or at least in three of the four, along with the first-down type of runs where they’re moving the chains, so they have a nice combination there,” he said. “They can go three yards, three yards, three yards, 70 yards because their backs are that skilled.”
The quarterback duel in this battle is essentially Reading senior Joe Hubbard versus Jonesville junior Spencer Nielsen, who is in some ways a mirror image of what Hubbard was last year.
Hubbard hasn’t thrown the ball a whole lot this year, but last week he was 9-for-14 for 135 yards and a score. His confidence and decision making skills have really improved since last year according to Bailey and the Rangers have been adding more passing plays to their arsenal as the season progresses.
Nielsen on the other hand, has an impressively accurate arm, but he is also in just his fifth start, and still prone to some rookie mistakes.
“It’s kind of two steps forward, two steps back, but he’s developing and he’s getting better and were confident that if we’re put in a position (to have to throw), we’ll be able to compete,” Lindeman said, noting that Reading’s front seven are as good as any team in the state in his opinion. “Film study has been vital to him. Even in practice (Tuesday), he missed a guy and as soon as I showed it to him he was like ‘Yeah, you’re right I should have seen the safety,’ so it’s a maturation process and then next week he’ll hit that pass and we go to the next step.”
For either of these teams to take the next step, the coaches both acknowledged how important it will be for their guys to play smart football for 48 minutes.
“It’s about ball control this week — I think the team that turns the ball over the least amount of times is going to win Friday night. They’ve been really good at ball control and haven’t turned it over much and we haven’t (controlled the ball well), so that’s one thing we’re focusing and concentrating on,” Lindeman said. “Because when you play great teams like Reading you have to control the ball and you have to limit mistakes to compete and I think that’s what is going to be the deciding factor Friday night.”
Bailey said he’s only spoke at length with Lindeman once, but he thinks the young head coach is on to something with that mindset.
“You’d like early success and to be able to establish your will, but the bottom line is you’ve got to play all 48 minutes or you’re going to come up on the short end,” he said.