When the Western Big 6 football schedule came out this summer, a lot of people circled this week on their calendars.
Sterling hosts Moline on Friday night at Roscoe Eades Stadium, a matchup involving the top two offenses and defenses in the league in just about every category. The winner secures at least a share of the conference crown, and Sterling is going for its third title in as many years since joining the league.
“Our kids are used to these kind of games, this is the expectation here, and it’ll continue to be as long as I’m around,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “We want to play for conference championships, play in big games.”
Moline boasts the top offense in the league, both in scoring (47.0 points per game) and rushing (309.8 yards per game). Sterling is No. 2 in both categories (42.0 points per game, 261.8 rush yards per game).
It’s the same on the other side of the ball. Moline has the top scoring defense (7.0 points per game allowed) and rushing defense (59.2 yards per game allowed); Sterling is second (16.2 points per game allowed, 125.2 rush yards per game allowed). The Golden Warriors are also second to Rock Island in pass defense (90.0 yards per game allowed).
But don’t think Sterling is treating this week any differently than usual.
“We’re taking this as the biggest game of the season, the biggest conference game, and then next week will be the same,” Tommy Tate said. “We just treat every game as 0-0, going out to win. We have the mentality every game of going one at a time, and work hard to win it.”
Sterling boasts the league’s top rusher in Antonio Tablante, who is averaging 126.2 yards per conference game and has scored 11 touchdowns. On the season, he has run for 783 yards and 12 touchdowns on 123 carries.
The Warriors’ quarterback platoon has featured Drew Kested, Garrett Polson and Colt Adams, and they have combined to complete 56 of 91 passes for 639 yards and six scores, with four interceptions. Top receiver Carter Ryan has 25 catches for 363 yards and four scores.
But Schlemmer knows this isn’t like any other defense his team has faced this season.
“Their defense is the first thing that stands out when you watch them. They’re just flat-out good,” Schlemmer said. “They’re aligned right, they don’t get out of position, and they get downhill. They’re super physical up front, they’ve got some really big kids, but still play athletically. I think their back-half kids are really talented. The defensive ends are stout, and their middle linebacker is a big kid who plays really physical.”
But the guys in the trenches have been strong all season, and they’re ready for the next challenge.
“They’re going to bring some big guys in the middle, but we’re prepared for that,” Alejandro Arrellano said. “We’ve got to step into our double teams and drive them back into the linebackers. It’s all about pushing 100% all four quarters, and knowing our alignments and assignments on both sides of the ball.”
Moline’s Riley Fuller is second in the conference behind Tablante at 106.6 yards per league game, and he’s run for 728 yards and seven touchdowns on 107 carries this season. Gavin Grace (40 rushes, 233 yards, 9 TDs), Cranston Wall (14 rushes, 232 yards, 1 TD) and Pablo Perez (27 rushes, 191 yards, 2 TDs) also get touches.
Quarterback Alec Ponder has thrown for 1,070 yards and 12 TDs on 63-for-125 passing, with seven interceptions. His favorite target is Matthew Bailey, who has 28 catches for 535 yards and seven scores; Grant Sibley has 10 catches for 126 yards and a touchdown, and Colin Shultz has eight catches for 204 yards and three TDs.
“It’s their efficiency that stands out,” Schlemmer said. “They run the ball right at you, but you can’t just concentrate on that, because they have some really nice playmakers on the outside, and they’re quarterback’s a good player who can get them the ball. They’re really versatile, so it’s not like you can just key on one thing. We’ve got to make sure we have our eyes in the right spots, and that we understand where we’re supposed to be and when we’re supposed to be there.”
Even with injuries plaguing them throughout the season, the Golden Warriors have showed their mettle and continued to win games. And as the regular season winds down and the playoffs loom ahead, Sterling’s players feel things have come together at the perfect time.
“I think we’re starting to flow,” Tate said. “We’re moving guys around and we’re getting our run game down, and our passing game is getting better. If we can keep getting our blocks down on the offensive line, I feel like our run game can continue to work pretty well.”
“We feel good, and it’s because we rep so many kids throughout the week, throughout the preseason, throughout the regular season, so it’s the ‘next man up’ mentality,” Schlemmer added. “As unfortunate as it might be, it just means another guy is going to get the opportunity to go play in a really big football game on a Friday night.”