If the game between state-ranked unbeatens Columbia and Central is half as good as the way both coaches describe their opposition, everyone should be in for one heck of a battle.
Friday’s Game: Columbia (6-0 overall, 4-0 in the Cahokia Conference) at Central (6-0, 4-0), 7 p.m.
“It never stops with them,” Central coach Brian Short said of the Eagles, the four-time defending conference champs who own a 28-game conference winning streak. They’re undefeated again for who knows how many years. This is definitely the program of the conference.
“They’ve been the big dogs for a while now.”
Columbia coach Scott Horner was just as free with his praise of the Cougars, who are seeking their first Cahokia Conference title since 2001.
“They’re extremely well coached and they just seem to have the right balance of people at every position,” Horner said. “They’re big and aggressive on the offensive line and they’ve got two great running backs.
“They’ve got an experienced quarterback and they’re aggressive as ever on defense. They’ve got all the tools.”
State rankings: Columbia is fifth in Class 4A; Central is eighth in Class 3A.
Columbia is 40-2 in the regular season since 2012 (both losses came to Waterloo) and the Eagles haven’t lost a Cahokia Conference game since 2011.
That year, Red Bud (34-20) and Central (27-20) knocked the Eagles off in back-to-back weeks. Columbia has owned the conference since then, but the Cougars have the added motivation of two one-point losses to the Eagles in 2015.
One of those knocked Central out of the playoffs.
“I think our guys have had this game circled on their calendars since last year,” Short said. “Any time a team eliminates you from the playoffs and takes a conference championship away from you, you don’t forget that. Columbia’s going to stand in everyone’s way until someone knocks them off.”
Last meeting: Columbia won 28-27 in the 2015 regular-season, then knocked the Cougars out of the playoffs with a 21-20 that saw Central come up unsuccessful on a 2-point conversion after scoring with 4:17 remaining.
Scouting Columbia: Averaging 42.6 points, the Eagles strike early and often and have most teams subdued by halftime.
“We can score quick,” Horner said. “We scored 37 points in the second quarter the other night because our kids were making plays.”
The playmakers include senior quarterback Greg Long (63-of-81, 894 yards, 13 touchdowns with no interceptions; 179 yards rushing and seven TDs), junior running back Colton Byrd (89 carries, 793 yards, 13 TDs) and junior receiver Jordan Holmes.
Holmes has 35 catches for 591 yards and nine TDs.
“In all my years if he’s not the best receiver I’ve had he’s definitely up there in the top couple,” Horner said. “If this kid was 6-foot-3 or 6-4, if we could get him away from basketball, in my mind he could be a solid receiver at the next level - and I don’t mean Division III.”
The Eagles will look for a way to slow down Central’s highly efficient running game, which includes an experienced and large offensive line.
In charge of that will be linebacker Owen Suedkamp (60 tackles), linebacker-defensive end Jarrett Allscheid (31 tackles, four sacks) and linebacker Byrd (32 tackles).
Scouting Central: There is no secret behind the Central offense, which averages 45.5 points and has scored at least 33 every game. The Cougars are going to pound things out on the ground and dare teams to stop them.
So far, no one has.
Running backs Collin Thomas (113 carries, 1,044 yards, 20 TDs) and Ben Rakers (74 carries, 697 yards, 10 TDs) alternate in the backfield.
“Our strength is definitely running the football and they’re going to get a heavy dose of No. 3 (Thomas) and No. 23 (Rakers) and we’ll see how they adjust defensively,” Short said. “Their coaches do a heck of a job over there.”
The Cougars also have senior quarterback Hunter Toeben (48-of-96, 670 yards, five TDs, five interceptions). His top targets are Bailey Stewart (10 catches, 232 yards, one TD) and Dalton Wise (13 catches, 111 yards, one TD).
Defensively, the Cougars rely heavily on Brice Haselhorst (48 tackles, eight sack) and linebackers Lucas Koopman (44 tackles), Thomas and Rakers.
“Central’s a ground-and-pound team,” Horner said. “They’re 75 percent run, not that they can’t throw it, but they haven’t needed to. They’re going to come right at you. The key for us is going to be whether or not we can keep their D-line off our quarterback to be able to have enough time to execute.”