Class B football showdown at Weiland Field
There probably won't be any Knute Rockne "Gipper" speeches necessary from the coaching staffs of the McCook High School and Aurora football programs this week.
Two of the top Class B prep gridiron programs in the Cornhusker State will renew their rivalry Friday, Sept. 2, at Weiland Field in McCook. The Bison and Huskies are set to kickoff at 7 p.m.
The two storied prep football programs each have qualified for the Class B state playoffs 24 times. Each has a pair of state titles in the past decade -- McCook won consecutive championships with perfect 13-0 records in both 2002 and 2003, with a 45-3 win over the Huskies in the 2002 playoff semifinals. Aurora won back-to-back state titles in 2008-09, ending McCook's season in the playoffs both years.
McCook head coach Jeff Gross said Aurora has beaten the Bison five straight times, including regular season and playoff meetings, in the past three years, after McCook had claimed six consecutive victories over the Huskies.
Both teams opened the year with wins last week, and both made the top six in the most recent Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star Class B state rankings.
The Bison head coach said it won't take much coaching to get his players emotionally ready to play Friday night.
"They're going to get themselves ready," Gross said. "They know the importance of this ball game in terms of pride and state importance. Both McCook and Aurora have had long-time tradition and tradition in the last decade -- two of the better programs (in the state).
"This has turned out to be an annual classic battle between each other. Hopefully not the first of two, because the last three years we've played each other twice (regular season and playoffs) and they've ended our season three years in a row and snapped our long-time winning streak. It ain't going to take much to motivate a bunch of kids to get excited for it."
Aurora win streak
McCook hasn't beaten the Huskies since a 42-7 win at Aurora in the third week of the 2008 regular season. That was Aurora's lone loss, as the Huskies went on to win the Class B state title, including a 37-33 thriller over the Bison in the playoff semifinals.
The following year, Aurora came to Weiland Field Sept. 11 and snapped McCook's 71-game home winning streak with a 48-10 decision. The Huskies ran the table in 2009, going unbeaten to win a second straight Class B state title, including a 35-10 win over the host Bison in the playoff quarterfinals.
Last fall, McCook went to Aurora Sept. 3 and gave the Huskies fits before the hosts prevailed 43-28. McCook led early before a pair of Aurora punt returns keyed the comeback.
The Bison reeled off six straight wins after the loss at Aurora before McCook lost to Holdrege in the regular-season finale.
Aurora ended McCook's season again last year in the playoff quarterfinals, as the host Huskies blanked the Bison, 27-0.
Wanted: week two improvement
Perhaps more important to Coach Gross and his Bison squad than facing Aurora again is the hope that the Bison can make a big improvement in the important week two contest.
"We need to correct mistakes we made last week," Gross said. "We need to have less penalties, we need to do a better job on everything, and that may mean we give up more yards, that may mean we score less points, that may mean we give up more points. The bottom line is we just need to look better than we did a week ago."
Bison penalty problems
Penalties plagued the Bison in a 28-7 win at Scottsbluff Friday, Aug. 26.
"But they're clean-up penalties," Gross said. "We had a couple offsides, lined up in the neutral zone. We had some delay of games where we were just taking too much time to get the play off, and a couple holding calls and a couple personal fouls. It wasn't like anything's uncorrectable. We'll learn from those. Penalties, a lot of people are talking about those, but those don't bother me as long as we fix them."
Penalties aside, Gross was pleased with his team's effort.
"But from an effort standpoint, I thought our kids played extremely hard, and we're going to have to take that up a notch. It's going to be cooler Friday night than it was last Friday, and that should help getting kids through the game without cramping up. Those kids that play both ways are going to have to learn each week they've got to play more and more and more and be in better shape. You could see on film, every time we started getting gassed, that's when Scottsbluff did things to us. The flip side was, when they were gassed was when we did stuff to them as well."
Huskies survive Seward
Aurora survived a Seward upset bid in last Friday's season-opener, as the Huskies held on for a 21-13 home victory.
"Seward's a good team. If Seward plays like they did the other night they will end up a Top 10 team in the state," Gross said. "They were in the ball game all the way to the end.
"I think Seward is a very quality team, and Seward is going to walk away from that game knowing that they played with one of the best teams in the state and they're going to springboard off it just like we did last year. We had no clue how we were as a football team until we got beat by Aurora in a close battle. That kind of spring-boarded us to six straight wins."
Huskies still loaded
Aurora lost a bunch of great seniors from last year's squad, including all-state quarterback Tyson Broekemeier. But the cupboard is far from bare.
The Huskies have a long list of starters returning, led by Division I line recruit Garrett Johns, a 270-pound senior. Senior Seth Schnakenberg takes over for Broekemeier running the Aurora offense.
Bison fans will remember Schnakenberg from last year's playoff meeting. After McCook knocked Broekemeier out of the contest, Schnakenberg came in and led the Huskies to the shutout win.
Aurora still runs head coach Randy Huebert's spread option attack, with Schnakenberg a key component in the running game. The Huskies also have a big fullback in 210-pound senior Nate Bell and a quick running back in seniors Trevor Thorell. Bell scored all three touchdowns against Seward last week, including an 80-yard scoring scamper, and had 170 rushing yards on the night.
Coach Gross said the Huskies come to the scrimmage line on offense and get the formation call from Huebert on the sideline. Then after seeing the defense set up, Schnakenberg will call out the play call.
"We have to disguise (the defense) a little bit -- you don't want to tip your hand too early, but you've got to wait for the quarterback to make the call," Gross said.
The Bison coach thinks individual battles will determine the outcome of Friday's contest.
"The last couple years we were so undermanned against them, we had to get real creative with what we we did against them," Gross said. "This year, to me, if you want a chance to beat Aurora, anybody that plays them week one to week nine, you've just got to line up and be a better football player at each position than they are. X's and O's won't win this game, execution from the players will."
Gross said the Huskies graduated a great receiving corps from last year's squad, and the jury is still out on how good this year's Aurora pass catchers will be. But the Bison coach is still expecting a potent Aurora passing game. Schnakenberg completed 9 of 20 passes for 143 yards against Seward last week.
Key to victory
The big boys up front will be a big key in Friday night's game, according to the Bison head man.
"We've got to control the line of scrimmage. Last week we played a very active, quick front (Scottsbluff). This week we're going to play a very big front. They're going to go 280, 280 and about 250 on their defensive line, and all those guys play both ways. Athlete-on-athlete, I'd say it's a very even battle. Our athletes need to make more plays than theirs do. Ultimately to have a chance, on both sides of the ball whoever can control the line of scrimmage is going to come away with a victory.
"Plus special teams are so big in this game. Last year we had the lead, only to give up two punt returns that really swung the tide. If we can avoid any special teams breakdowns, and this year be the ones that makes the special teams plays, then you've got to like your chances."
The Bison have a pair of speedy return men in juniors Jake Schlager and Austin Cherry. Cherry returned the opening kickoff against Scottsbluff over 80 yards, getting tripped up inside the Bearcat 10-yard line.
McCook has a wealth of offensive weapons, led by senior quarterback Matt Chitwood, plus Schlager at running back and senior fullback Justin Terry. All three had productive rushing games last week, as Terry went for 114 yards on 12 carries, and Chitwood added 101 on 12 tries. Schlager added 62 yards on 11 carries despite a concerted effort from the Scottsbluff defense to not let Schlager run free outside.
Chitwood also has a stable of talented receivers, led by juniors Cody Wudtke, Matt Collicott and Cherry, plus senior Zayne Gillen.
Friday's battle will have a big-game atmosphere with Class B state bragging rights on the line between two of the state's top programs. Coach Gross is hoping for a huge home crowd to help support the Bison.
"We want everybody to come out, we want a sea of red in that stadium -- and (Aurora is) red and white, too," Gross said. "There's no animosity between two programs, two great football powerhouses that are battling, and hoping to be undefeated in week three, that's really what it means. Then you're back to the drawing board on Saturday morning whether you win or lose this.
"There is a lot of bragging rights at stake in terms of Aurora can say, 'Well, we still got you, we still got the streak going against you,' and we can hopefully say 'We stopped it, we got the tide rolled back the other way.'"