In one game after another this year, Rock Island quarterback Eli Reese has lit up opposing defenses. In six games, the Rocks’ signal-caller has completed 68 of 106 passes for 988 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 668 passing yards in four league games leads all Western Big 6 quarterbacks, with Moline’s Alec Ponder second with 614 yards.
Reese and the Rocks face a tough test on Friday, as Rock Island will welcome the league’s top passing defense: Sterling.
“We have to be ready for their drag routes across the middle,” Sterling’s Jacob Huffman said. “They like to throw to [tight end Kai Rios], so we’ve got to be ready for him.”
Rios has been one of Reese’s favorite targets this season, hauling in 26 catches for 299 yards including nine catches for 117 yards in the Week 6 win over Galesburg.
“He’s a physical kid, so we just have to be physical back with him,” Huffman said.
Reese has also been able to get the ball to Marieon Anderson, to the tune of 22 catches for 352 yards and five scores, and find Desmond Woodson, Joe Allen and Quonterrion Brooks for touchdowns.
Reese picked apart United Township on September 24 for five touchdowns and 180 passing yards, then threw for 226 passing yards in an overtime win over Galesburg last week.
“I think the first thing you have to do is understand that the quarterback is a very good player,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “He’s played in a lot of football games. He has the ability to beat you with his feet if you let him sit back there. He’s got good enough athletes on the outside, he can make some big-time throws.”
But Sterling’s defense has shown a habit of shutting down the passing game this season.
Through four league games this fall, Sterling has allowed a paltry 323 passing yards, an average of 4.8 yards per attempt.
In order to keep that going against Reese, Schlemmer said the Warriors have to put pressure on him.
“Once we get there, we have to make sure we wrap him up because he is a good athlete,” Schlemmer said. “If we just hit him once, he’s a big enough kid and a good enough athlete that he’ll be able to squirm out of that.”
Sterling defensive lineman Jason Farnham Jr. said the key to putting pressure on Reese is to “get off the ball, get off the tackle and hit him as hard as possible and hit him as many times as possible, because I’ve been watching a lot of film and he kind of gets on his back foot when he gets touched a lot.”
There have been some signs of passing games getting moving against the Golden Warriors. In Week 6, Quincy quarterback Adon Byquist was 8-for-22 passing for 144 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown to Peyton Weech. Bradyn Little came on in relief and completed 4-of-12 for 76 yards, though the one passing play of his that went for a touchdown was a pick-6 by Sterling’s Alejandro Arellano. When Sterling faced Galesburg, Streaks quarterback Tristan Legate had a few open receivers over the top looking at potential long plays, only to have the passes dropped.
In Week 7, Sterling’s defense, which is allowing 14.9 yards per catch, will have several receivers to keep an eye on.
“They have so many good athletes on the perimeter that we have to make sure that, for us, sometimes being in the right spot isn’t enough, you have to make plays when you’re there,” Schlemmer said. “We had a few coverage things last week that, that’s why we’re back to work this week working on there.”
Rock Island’s defense will give the Warriors a few different fronts. The Rocks defense shut out Alleman and held United Township to six points, but allowed 63 in a loss to Moline and 27 in regulation in the overtime win over Galesburg.
“They’ve got some nice kids, and if you watch, especially the first couple drives of some games, they smack you,” Schlemmer said. “It’s about understanding, when we’re talking about some of our run schemes, who we’re double-teaming, because they do some good things about moving personnel around and knowing where we’re going.”
For the Golden Warriors, the last three weeks of the regular season will be a tough stretch. After Rock Island, the Warriors host Moline, currently tied with Sterling atop the Western Big 6, then Week 9 brings a trip to United Township, the team that ended Sterling’s bid for a perfect season with a last-second win in Week 6 of the spring season.
“We just have to practice how we’ve been practicing,” Huffman said. “Keep doing what we’re doing, stay focused.”