The Dixon football team has outscored its first three opponents 147-7 to open the 2021 season. But after wins over Oregon, North Boone and Rockford Christian, the schedule starts to turn tougher with a trip to Stillman Valley on Friday night.
The Dukes are happy with how they’ve played so far, but know they can’t get overconfident in the Big Northern Conference.
“We have to play with confidence this week, but we can’t just think, ‘We’re 3-0, so we’ve got this,’” senior wide receiver/defensive back Mason Randick said. “We know we’re facing a great team this week, so we’ve got to be prepared for it, mentally focused on what’s happening this week and not think about the last few weeks.”
Dixon defeated Stillman Valley 20-19 on a late touchdown catch by Hunter Gehrt last spring at A.C. Bowers Field. Not only was it the Dukes’ only win of the spring to go with three close losses, but it also snapped a two-game losing streak against Stillman Valley.
Before that, Dixon had won its first four games against the Cardinals after joining the Big Northern in 2014. The Dukes hope to keep building another win streak this week.
“We’ve just got to go into the game with the mindset that we want to win, and do whatever we can to do that,” Randick said. “We all have to be ready to go. We have to practice hard this whole week, we can’t let up, and we just have to show them what we’re about.”
The Dukes have dominated every category in their three wins. After allowing 67 total yards in Week 1 and less than 100 with their starters in Week 2, they gave up 128 total yards – including minus-40 on the ground – in their 62-0 win over Rockford Christian last Friday.
They scored on offense (5 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), defense (interception return TD) and special teams (blocked punt TD) against Rockford Christian, and averaged 11.4 yards per play while amassing 420 total yards of offense (344 rushing, 76 passing) in their first road game of the season.
Dixon coach Jared Shaner hopes that experience of playing away from home last week will help out in a hostile environment in Stillman Valley.
“I think we were fortunate to go in and have our first road game last week; hopefully that will help, and we can draw on our experience from last week,” Shaner said. “We came out a little sluggish last week on the road, and I think there are probably a number of reasons why that was, but hopefully we got a few of those kinks out and we can go Friday and rely on that road experience against a really good team like Stillman Valley, who’s going to have stands packed full of people and a great atmosphere.”
After facing passing-oriented offenses the last two weeks, Dixon will be looking at the other end of the spectrum against the Cardinals (2-1). Fullback Griffin Brittnell will lead a ground-and-pound attack that also features running backs Gage Henderson, Colten Cook, Madix Barrett and Jory Spain. Seniors Cullen White, Dylan Davis and Andrew Latham anchor the line on both sides of the ball.
“Coach Lalor’s done just an amazing job, running that same offense for years,” Shaner said. “Probably the most frustrating thing is you can call their plays for them, and you can tell your guys where to line up defensively and exactly what to expect, and Stillman just does it better than the other team, more times than not. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse; you know exactly what you’re going to get, but then you’ve got to try to stop it.”
This week’s defensive assignment is more like what the Dukes will see the rest of the season in the Big Northern, and Randick and his teammates are eager to get after it.
“I do like going against a running attack like we’re about to see and that we’ll see in a lot of games coming up. We’re ready,” he said. “As long as we play they way we’re taught on defense, we’re going to have a good time as a team and it’s going to be a great game.
“We have to work our tails off, stop the run on defense, and play our game on offense: run the ball, pass the ball, possess the ball, and do our jobs.”
Dixon did see a run-oriented offense in Week 1 against Oregon, but Shaner says the style and skill that Stillman will bring to the field Friday night is different than anything they Dukes have seen so far this season.
The key is to try and force the Cardinals to play from behind the chains, get them into third-and-long situations where they aren’t as comfortable.
“It;s going to be a challenge, because even the first couple of weeks when teams did run the ball against us, it was more perimeter-type stuff, getting it to quicker skill kids out on the edge – and that’s not what you’re going to get most of the time with Stillman,” Shaner said. “We’re going to get a whole bunch of the fullback, and if you can’t stop the fullback from getting 3 to 4 yards, they won’t call another play. They’re perfectly content with doing that all the way down the field.
“So you have to, especially in the early downs, be able to stop the fullback for minimal gain, 1 to 2 yards, and try to make them feel some pressure on third down where they either have to go with a toss play, a counter play, a pass play – things that they still do well, but not as good as running the fullback between the tackles.”
The Cardinals bounced back from a 35-0 loss to Byron in Week 1 with a 48-0 win over Rock Falls and a 36-7 win over Oregon the last two weeks. Shaner expects even stronger play out of Stillman as the season goes on and the Cardinals continue to adjust to the loss of 23 seniors – including five first-team all-conference players – to graduation last spring.
The Dukes are experiencing the other side of that, after losing only four seniors from last spring’s season. The close-knit bonds the team has formed have paid dividends so far.
“Our team chemistry has combined and built up since freshman year to senior year. We’ve meshed a lot compared to what we used to be, and as a team we’re so familiar and comfortable. We really know each other now, compared to what we used to,” Randick said. “It’s been a lot of fun so far, and it really shows on the field.”