NEW CARLISLE — It's no secret New Prairie football's offense is hard to stop; just ask any of its opponents this year.
"You don't stop that offense," said Culver Academies coach Andy Dorrel. "You can only hope to slow it down enough to give your team a chance."
The Cougars sit at 9-1 and fourth in the state in Class 4A due in large part to a high-scoring unit led by star quarterback Chase Ketterer. The lone blemish on their record, however, came against Elkhart Central in the final week of the regular season.
"Elkhart (Central) did as good a job as anyone defensively against us this year," said New Prairie associate head coach Bill Gumm. "They like to come off the edges real fast, run some twist-stunts and some blitzes. But at the same time, we were still able to take care of that pretty decently."
New Prairie's 28 points against the Blazers is good for its second-lowest total of the year. And while 28 points surely isn't anything to scoff at, coach Russ Radtke blamed the loss on his team's inability to execute in clutch situations. Whether it was turning the ball over in inopportune situations or failing to score after taking over deep in Elkhart Central territory, his typically-potent offense disappointed when he needed it most.
These "struggles" against the Blazers provide a bit of a blueprint for any team the Cougars run into on their playoff run. Elkhart Central has a Division I commit on its defensive line; a quick, athletic front seven; and it frequently blitzes and mixes up its looks defensively to confuse the opposition. A combination of these three didn't necessarily stop New Prairie, but it slowed Ketterer and company down enough to keep the Blazers in the game until the very end.
The Cougars' next opponent, Culver Academies, has all three of those ingredients necessary to limiting their offensive production. The Eagles' defense is anchored by three-star defensive end and Iowa commit Deontae Craig, who ranks second in the state at the position, according to Rivals. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Craig is somewhat undersized for his position, but utilizes his agility and quick hands to create separation from opposing linemen.
New Prairie's offensive line is one of the best units in the state, weighing in at over 1,500 pounds combined. It will certainly have its hands full with Craig, but thankfully for the Cougars, they have the luxury of having one of the best linemen in the state in tackle Hunter Whitenack. The sophomore is 6-foot-6, 315 pounds and agile for his size — a combination that already has prestigious schools such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Notre Dame recruiting him. Whitenack will likely go one-on-one with Craig when lined up across from each other to allow the rest of his line to focus on other defenders, making for a must-watch matchup tonight.
"I'm very excited about facing off against him," Whitenack said. "He's one of the top players in the state and I always want to challenge myself and go against the best. I need to make sure I use the technique I have learned from my coaches and always keep my feet moving. He's a very fast player and I need to do my best to match his speed. It's going to be a battle through everything. Where he beats me with speed, I can beat him with aggressiveness and strength."
The first step in Elkhart Central's blueprint to limiting the New Prairie offense is having a dynamic defensive lineman that creates penetration and wreaks havoc on his own. Cross that one off the list for Culver Academies.
Steps two and three? Mixing up defensive looks and blitzing effectively to create even more chaos. The Eagles pride themselves on effectively doing so each week, posing even more of a problem for Gumm's offense.
"We're a fast, aggressive, attacking defense," Dorrel said. "We bring a lot of people from a lot of different places. So we're hoping we can hit seams, get penetration and use our speed to match their size. So if it's possible, we'd be able to basically run around or run through them in a way that enables us to get some penetration and slow down their offensive attack."
That won't change the Cougars' offensive game plan much though. They run nearly every play in the same formation: A shotgun set with Ketterer and running back Chris Mays in the backfield, with wing backs or slot receivers just outside the linemen and a pair of receivers out wide. They don't pass the ball often, banking on their powerful line to open up holes for their pair of talented runners. It's a reactionary offense, as Gumm describes it, relying on making the right decisions on the read option based on what the defense gives them.
This gives them an advantage over just about any defense. Ketterer and Mays share the duties of reading defenses and collaborate on what to run to counter the opposition during every play. The pair have three years of varsity experience and have shared the backfield for the past two years, making those reads look like clockwork. Their high football IQs will be vital as they look to advance to the sectional finals.
Class 4A Sectional 18
Culver Academies (6-4) at New Prairie (9-1), 6:30 p.m.