The final week of this delayed and shortened season will being one last test for the Dixon Dukes: trying to slow down the potent North Boone offense.
The Dukes (1-2) hit the road for their fourth and final game Saturday afternoon, and waiting for them in Poplar Grove will be an aerial display off the arm of Vikings quarterback Logan Emanuel.
While the passing game is nothing too foreign to the Dukes, who see the ball whizzing through the air every day in practice, North Boone (3-0) takes things even further than Dixon.
“Nobody we’ve played really prepares us for what North Boone does. I would say us and them are similar offensive characteristics, although they don’t even care to run it as much as we do, I would say,” Dixon coach Jared Shaner said. “They want to drop back and try to beat you one out of every five plays deep, and they’ll take lots of shots down the field. They’ve got a good quarterback and a couple of really skilled receivers, and they have a couple good backs too that’ll run it when they need to.”
Emanuel has 11 touchdown passes in three games, and Will Doetch is one of his favorite targets down the field. In the Vikings’ last game Week 4 against Oregon – their Week 5 game against Stillman Valley was canceled due to COVID protocols – Doetch caught a pair of TD passes and added another score on a 70-yard punt return.
But the key for the Dixon defense isn’t just to rely on the secondary to make plays. The guys up front are working hard to help make the job easier for the guys behind them.
“Definitely having our tackles out for contain for the quarterback this time will help. We’re trying a little different technique now, switching up some stuff with different guys. It’s definitely a different ballgame,” senior Ben Fassler said. “It’s very important, especially how we play defense and the way their offense is set up, for us to stay outside with our pass rush, keep the edge, and put pressure on their quarterback the whole time.”
On the other side off the ball, the Dukes boast a nice blend of run and pass, with junior quarterback Jake Gaither leading the way. After Dixon gave up a touchdown to Stillman Valley with 1:01 to play last week, Gaither moved the offense 74 yards in 38 seconds by completing five passes, the last one a 28-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Hunter Gehrt to retake the lead with 21.3 seconds left in an eventual 20-19 victory.
Gaither threw for 147 yards and two TDs, and he also ran for 58 yards, and with the Dukes equally adept at moving the ball either on the ground or through the air, it puts a lot of pressure on a defense.
“Us having balance with the run and the pass, and being able to change things on the fly during the game can help us cause some damage, hopefully,” Fassler said.
The thing about last week’s win that was even more satisfying for Shaner was seeing his players get that payoff after two five-point losses in their first two games. He believes the ability to respond to adversity in the final minutes last weekend – thanks to lessons learned in those other close losses – will bode well for this weekend and beyond.
“We’ve been in tight games all season, and I think that’s good experience for us,” he said. “Hopefully if things don’t go well at some point – and North Boone will make some plays on you, they make plays on everybody – we can rely back on the fact that we’ve been in those tight games, and we found a way last week to come back and, even when we gave up a score late, we moved down the field and got another back on them, so I think that’ll help.”
For Fassler and his four fellow seniors, Saturday afternoon will be the final time they suit up for the Dukes. While another win is one of the top priorities, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying their final 48 minutes with their teammates is also high on the list.
“I think the main thing is trying to keep our heads up no matter what happens during the game. We just want to go out and have fun,” Fassler said. “It’s been a tough season this year, especially this being our last game for our five seniors, so we want to do whatever we can to get that last win, and enjoy our last time out there on the field.”