By JOSH SIGLER
Coach Aaron Tolle’s Tipton football squad has been about closing the gap between themselves and the kings of the Class 2A hill in recent years.
Back in 2010, the Blue Devils were elated to snap a nine-year sectional champsionship drought with its first crown since 2001.
The Blue Devils were routed in regional play, falling to eventual state champion Fort Wayne Bishop Luers the following week, 55-14.
2011 brought a repeat sectional title before the Devils bowed out to Luers in the regional round for the second straight year, 44-23.
The Knights went on to claim the Class 2A state title for the third time in as many years, but the Blue Devils left that regional loss feeling like significant ground had been made from the 2010 blowout.
The No. 4-ranked Devils host the No. 5 Knights tonight, a game in which Tolle and crew hope to completely close the gap that’s been present in seasons past.
“Being there two times before against the same opponent, we know what to expect, so we don’t think that ‘shock factor’ is going to be there,” Tolle said. “Any time you play Fort Wayne Luers, you are taking on one of the best football programs in Indiana, regardless of class. We’re playing against kids who are very used to winning, probably more so than our own kids. We’ll be playing the most athletic team on our schedule. I think having played them the last two years, we aren’t going to be intimidated. We know what to expect, but we also know the challenge is very, very high. I do think having played in regional ballgames the last two years, and playing a team we’re familiar with has to help us, especially between the ears.”
Luers has been able to put together a fine season despite controversy off the field.
Head coach Steve Keefer took over after Matt Lindsay was fired for “violations of school and Diocesan policy” the day before the Knights played Fort Wayne Wayne on Sept. 14. Keefer was previously the head coach of the program from 1979-86 and won a state title with the Knights in 1985. He had rejoined the coaching staff in recent years before taking over for Lindsay.
Luers wound up forfeiting the Wayne game for unrelated reasons, and although it enters with an 8-4 record, the only other in-state loss came to 5A No. 4 Fort Wayne Snider in Week 1, 10-7. Snider enters regional play 12-0.
The Knights are led by Mr. Football candidate Jaylon Smith. Smith is a Notre Dame recruit and U.S. Army All-American who is currently ranked No. 3 in the Rivals 100 2013 national prospect class. Smith, who anchors both the offense and defense as a running back and linebacker, ran for 1,200 yards and 31 touchdowns a season ago while adding 8.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
With the graduation of Bowling Green recruit James Knapke at quarterback, the Knights have leaned heavily on their ground game this season. They found themselves in a dogfight last week in a 21-0 win over Churubusco, a game in which the Knights led 7-0 with eight minutes to play.
Tipton has made a plethora of big plays on defense this season. The Devils have picked off 22 passes and returned 7 of them for touchdowns. The squad also boasts 39 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and seven fumble recoveries.
“Not that they don’t have them this year, but last year they had a lot of tools on offense that could spread you out all over the field and put a lot of stress on your defense,” Tolle said. “Not that they’re not capable, but they don’t have a Division I quarterback who can make all the throws this year. They seem to be a bit more tailback oriented, and [Smith] is very good. I don’t think we’re going to ask ourselves to shut him down completely. But, our hopes are to contain him and keep ourselves in the ballgame much like Churubusco did last week.”
As a result, a lot of Luers’ success this season has been predicated on a stingy defense that has only given up two touchdowns in three postseason games to this point, led by Smith, who will likely play linebacker for the Fighting Irish.
The Knights have given up just 10 points per game in their 8 wins.
“I think they start 11 seniors on that side of the ball. That’s the core of their team,” Tolle said. “They have eight returning starters on defense and they’re very fast. They take a lot of pride in their defense. They fly to the ball and gang tackle. We take a lot of pride in our offense, so we’re going to try and match their intensity.”
The Devils (11-1) have averaged over 40 points per game this season, including a 49-ppg clip in their current six-game win streak.
The success has been due, in large part, to their ability to stay balanced. Junior quarterback Austin Hooker has completed 118 of 188 passes for 1,947 yards, 21 TDs and six interceptions, but the Devils have also run for nearly 2,700 yards, led by senior fullback James Altherr, who enters tonight with 1,241 yards and 15 TDs on 178 carries.
Senior wideout Blake Hoover has been a dangerous weapon for the Devils all season long, catching 56 passes for 969 yards and 16 TDs. He’s also returned three kickoffs and a punt back for scores, and has returned four of his seven interceptions back to house.
Tolle is eager to see how the battle of wills plays out as his team seeks to reach the 12-win plateau for the first time since 1994.
“I think a lot of times when you play a team of [Luers’] caliber, you have a hard time matching up offensive and defense line-wise,” he said. “That’s been one of our strengths this year. I’ve had a number of coaches tell me our offensive line was the best they’ve faced all year, so that tells me I think we can compete with them up front. If we can do that, I think that certainly gives us a chance.”