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Adapt, improvise and they'll overcome, SJO can win on Saturday

Above: SJO senior Jordan Hartman celebrates his 12-yard tackle-for-a-loss on Williamsville during their 2013 home playoff game. The Spartans, after shutting out Monticello 35-0 in their second round game, won the contest after a thrilling 38-26 finish. The Spartans would win the next game and advance to the state title game in DeKalb against Stillman Valley. Below: Dylan Koss celebrates the Spartans' win with assistant coach Marshall Schacht. This weekend the pair will coach together hoping to beat the Bullets and advance to week 2 of the playoffs. (Photos: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)
By conventional wisdom, the #15 seeded St. Joseph-Ogden football team faces improbable odds of winning their first-round Class 3A game on the road this Saturday. Facing the undefeated #2 seed Williamsville at Paul Jenkins Field the Bullets have a high-powered offense that has produced touchdowns, lots of them, both on the ground and in the air all season long.

In their nine games so far, thanks to the efforts of two college caliber players and supportive cast of able-bodied linemen, the team averages an impressive 48 points/game.

Against Pittsfield (1-8) back on October 18, quarterback Connor McCormick went 10-for-10 in passing, good for 178 years and four touchdown. Williamsville ran the score up to win, 55-14.

The other marquee player the Spartans have to contain is Grant Ripperda. Listed at 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, he was a state-qualifier in wrestling back in February and is quick enough at his size to run on 4x2 and 4x4 squads in track. In Williamsville's away contest at Auburn on September 13, Ripperda scored on a 6-yard run in the first quarter and he then preceded tack on three more TDs in the second. He finished the night out with 145 yards on 14 carries in Bullet's 34-17 victory.

In the same game, McCormick passed for 240 yards on a 15-for-22 effort and produced one touchdown during the regular season Sangamo Conference game.

The Spartans must also contend with a stingy defense that has held opposing offenses to two or less scores in seven of their nine regular season contests. North Mac (5-4) was able to break the barrier with three and Maroa-Forsyth (8-1) scored six times. In both cases, both teams suffered losses contributing to Williamsville's perfect season so far.

There is only one way to shutdown a versatile, high-powered high school offense like Williamsville. It's called a blizzard.

Remember 2015 semifinal game in Tolono when SJO had a similar offense, touting a 12-0 record, that would have easily advanced to the 3A title game had it not been for that unexpected, early season snowstorm with blizzard like conditions that put two inches of slush on the ground between the goal post at Hicks Field.

Page from the Big Picture's Blizzard Bowl edition

In 2015 when SJO faced the Unity Rockets on the road in the infamous Class 3A 'Blizzard Bowl' semifinal. See the Big Picture special edition from the game here . . . . (Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)

In more favorable conditions, the Spartans could have aired out the ball all day long against the Rockets had it not been for the sustained 20+ mph breeze out of the northwest. Freezing cold along with ankle deep muck made up of snow, wet grass and mud kept the SJO ground game in check. Throwing the ball against the variable wind direction and unexpected gusts, wasn't the answer.

Unity prevailed 30-8 in that contest ending the chance for St. Joseph-Ogden's first-ever back-to-back state championship game appearances.

That one hurt the Spartans, but Mama Nature has also been generous to SJO.

According to football alumnus Nathan Buss, St. Joseph-Ogden was #15 seed or so back during the 91-92 season. With the help of a blizzard on game day, the Spartans won their first-round game.

"We played Casey-Westfield at home," he said in a social media post. "They had to plow the out of bounds and 5-yard markers."

SJO narrowly won the game, 8-6.

"We had a punt return for a TD and a 2pt conversation," Buss wrote. "Didn’t have a lineman weighing over 200 pounds!!! Killer Dwarves !!! And a Sophomore QB! Hell of a year!!!"

After last Friday's loss to Monticello, head coach Shawn Skinner had a little trouble coming up with good things to say about the game. Despite that, he was happy that his team and coaching staff has one more game to prepare for this week.

"When the kids come in Monday, what they are going to understand is they are going to be excited and not going to have to leave with this being the last one they have in their mouth all off season," Skinner said last Friday. "They have another opportunity to fix this."

Short of divine interference from Mother Nature, the key to St. Joseph-Ogden advancing to the second round is playing smart, ball-control football.

"All we have to do is figure out how to go one and O next week," Skinner said. "That's what it's about. No matter who the matchup is we have another opportunity to play and that's good."

Brady Buss carries the ball for SJO during the Monticello game.
Brady Buss sheds one tackler and looks for more pasture while carrying the ball in the Spartans last regular season game for 2019. The Spartans (5-4) earned a first-round bid against 9-0 Williamsville. Game time is set for 1p on Saturday. (Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)
There are four things Skinner & Co. need to reach that goal.

First, they can take a hint from Maroa-Forsyth (8-1), who nearly beat the Bullets in their week 4 game. The Trojans up on the scoreboard 41-37 late in the fourth quarter, the Bullets needed a score to win. With less than two minutes on the clock, they crafted a successful final drive for the go-ahead score and a 43-41 victory.

The takeaway is Maroa ran 71 plays and averaged seven yards per carry against the Bullets. If the Spartans can yield a little more than half that number, they will be in the position to hand out the upset the Trojans didn't. Pick up four yards per play, and SJO can be a close game.

That means coaches have to come up with some creative methods to keep the Williamsville's offense off the field and wear down their defense, which is stacked with a lot of one-way players. That won't be easy.

Jarrett Stevenson, Coby Miller and Keaton Nolan will have their work cut out for them on Saturday. However, if they can grind out those four yards on every play - nothing big, nothing fancy - they will set SJO up handsomely for the first playoff victory in the Skinner era.

Second, the offensive linemen need to become pesky gnats and force Williamsville defenders into longer engagements. The first two games of the season, SJO blocking was grade A. Opposing defenders were kept out of the play longer by Max Chatterton, Blake Dable and Conner Hodge. That allowed Stevenson to put up solid rushing numbers in those contests.

The O-line has to keep the Bullet defenders busy fighting them off longer. The 'bump and quit' will not create scoring opportunities for the SJO run or passing game. Blocking to the whistle will be key.

Third on the list, the Spartans need to capitalize on their strength as a team. St. Joseph-Ogden players are quick-thinkers, possess a combination of speed and strength, and are tenacious competitors.

The challenge for the coaching staff is to find a weakness in Williamsville's casings and exploit it using the talent they have. The bigger and strong guy doesn't win all the time. The odds are on their side, but usually it is the smarter - and there are some intelligent student-athletes at SJO, faster and most tenacious guy who wins. If coaches and can rapidly adapt, improvise and overcome as the game wears on, SJO could playing yet one more week.

Finally, the players on the sidelines must to feed the beasts on grass.

The surefire way to tell which team is going to win a football game, with 92.4% accuracy (that's the author's estimation and not exact science), is pay attention to the athletes not on the field. Players standing on the sidelines of really good teams are cheering for their teammates. They slapping pads, butting helmets and handing water when players come out. On E-V-E-R-Y play they are supplying their fellow beasts with a continuous flow of positive energy to get the job done. Those teams win almost every S-I-N-G-L-E time.

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