Forgive people if Friday night’s showdown between Reading and Hudson doesn’t feel like a typical second round playoff game.
It’s a match-up of two 10-0 teams with wildly successful coaches, running games that are among the best in the state and defenses that are loaded with speed and athleticism — yet one of them will fall short of the regional round because ties don’t apply this time of year.
While it is two undefeated squads who out-scored their opponents by more than a 3-to-1 margin to this point, there seems to be sentiment among the local high school football communities and fans that Hudson is the popular pick because they played tougher opponents and because they have greater depth.
Lenawee County residents have an obvious bias toward the Tigers, but to a point that a Hudson loss would seem to be very unexpected.
In an online poll on the Adrian Daily Telegram’s Web site, at www.lenconnect.com, 86 percent of more than 150 respondents said they think Hudson will be district champions come late Friday.
Reading head coach Rick Bailey sort of laughs at people who are discounting his Rangers a year after they made it all the way to the state semifinals and he said not a whole lot of fans have had the luxury of watching both teams play.
“Well, I don’t know. I would say most people in Lenawee County haven’t seen us play, and I would say secondly, Hudson has beaten Onsted and Blissfield, both very powerful schools in Lenawee County,” he said.
Luma agrees with Bailey’s theory and he said it’s almost unbelievable how similar the two teams are on both sides of the ball.
“The more film I watch the more similarities I see in the style in the type of kids both have. It is eerie to see how close in looks we are,” he said. “A lot of people have said they think we are overlooking Reading and we are not overlooking Reading — this is the big game for us and it is a good opponent and it’s another opportunity for our kids to go out and do what we do.”
Success will begin and end with which team can break free on some of their signature long touchdown plays and which team can adjust defensively and possibly put the opponent in third-and-long situations.
Bailey said what makes Hudson so good is they have a great group of athletes running the fullhouse-T formation, the same offense that has been run by the Tigers since the 1970s. He said that consistency always bodes well, and with athletes like feature back Drew Milligan, who ran for 915 yards and 14 TD on 108 carries in the regular season, it’s easy to explain how Hudson go to this point.
“I think all of their backs are capable. Obviously Milligan has quickness, he’s got a low center of gravity because he’s not very tall and he’s powerfully built,” Bailey said. “It’s the same as with any successful running game though — you’ve got to have the guys up front to block, unless you’re Barry Sanders with the Detroit Lions.”
Chris Robbins has also run for 862 yards and quarterback Nathan Smith compiled 371 yards rushing, as the Tigers averaged 370 yards per game and scored 48 touchdowns on the ground in the regular season.
The big question is whether or not the Tigers can pass, as they were only 11 of 22 for 79 yards prior to the playoffs.
Bailey said he knows Smith is too good of an athlete not to be able to pass the ball and he expects Luma has had his guys airing the ball out plenty in practice.
From the sounds of it Bailey is right, although Luma admits he has plenty to learn about his own team’s ability to move the ball vertically.
“We’ve worked on it a lot and then this week we have probably more than any other time just because we know as the playoffs go on you get against stiffer competition like Reading. You better be able to handle those third-and-long (situations) or even penalties on first down,” he said. “Sometimes we’ve been able to run our way out of that, but in the playoffs I think you’re not going to be able to, so we’ve worked hard on it. I think we have the kids to do it, but we haven’t been tested in that area a lot and we might find out Friday if we can.”
Bailey said while it’s not necessarily a goal to force Hudson into passing the ball, it will mean that his team has had some success if the Tigers are forced go away from their running attack.
On the opposite side of the ball is where Bailey seems to be most impressed with the opposition, despite the constant talk about Hudson’s vaunted, unstoppable offense.
“ You don’t get to 10-0 or beat some of the teams that they’ve beat without being very good, but the things I’ve seen on film their defense shouldn’t take second seat to their offense at all —here of late they are shutting everybody down and getting the ball back right away,” he said. “When you watch them play Addison there at the end of the year, Addison can run the football but they didn’t run it very successfully at all against Hudson. It kept getting the ball back to (Hudson’s) offense and they’re too good at what they do to not keep the ball away from them.”
Hudson said ball-control is exactly what he preaches to his players, and some additions to the defensive line and linebacking corps have helped immensely the second half of the season. After giving up 279 and 231 rushing yards in wins over Onsted and Blissfield the Tigers haven’t allowed more than 128 the past six weeks.
Derrick Marry was finally medically cleared from a knee injury that happened during wrestling season and Marry’s younger brother Devan came up from JV to play linebacker, while one of the Tigers’ main defensive lineman received a clean bill of health.
The secondary has also improved, after giving up 331 yards to Dundee.
“It looked like we gave up a little on the passing, so we spent more time on 7-on-7 (drills) in practice to make sure our secondary was improving,” Luma said. “Things like that have all come together for us at the same time and we’ve shown great improvement.”
Improved or not, Reading backs like Brian Rauth, Billy Julian and Matt VanNuys seem to be mostly immune to whatever teams throw at them.
For a good part of the regular season Rauth was going over 200 yards almost every time out and last week Julian bulldozed his way to 124 yards and two scores with muddy enough conditions that his number was unreadable by the second half. Coupled with the return of VanNuys from an ankle injury, the Rangers are also a run-first group, although QB Joe Hubbard has shown his affinity passing, with 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
“(Rauth is) definitely a threat to go the distance anytime and we’ve some good backs…until I see him live it’s hard to tell what his speed is really like. A lot of it is you’ve just got to contain (backs like him),” Luma said. “You can’t let them get outside and you have to be able to make tackles in your secondary so if they make a 15-yard run at least it’s not a 70-yard touchdown.”
In a match-up that is so even on paper both coaches are counting on different variables.
For Reading, it’s the same intense focus they have brought to every practice and game all season long, according to Bailey.
“We start at the beginning of the year and we talk about winning every game you play, so that’s playing 14 games if you win them all, so that’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “Some years it’s a more realistic goal than others and from there we just focus on the week at hand, what we need to do to win it and then we review it Saturday morning as to what we need to improve on and then we head to next week and work on getting better.”
Luma is hoping the number of quality opponents his team has played is a difference maker Friday. The Tigers opponent’s combined record thus far is 52-44 compared to the Rangers’ 35-58 mark, and Hudson has wins over the likes of Blissfield, Onsted and Stockbridge.
“I think it’s huge in a game like this. If you’ve been down before then hopefully if you get down you don’t panic and your kids know to keep believing and keep plugging away because they’ve done it before,” he said. “We’ve seen athletes like Reading has on a more weekly basis and it kind of just gets you ready to play against those kinds of good athletes. I think it’s huge we have a strong schedule.”