For the first few weeks of the season, Dixon has played against a team installing a new offensive system, and pass-happy spread offense, and a team that is still finding its footing in the Big Northern Conference.
And while the Dukes have won all three of those games against Oregon, North Boone and Rockford Christian, they will turn the page this week when they host Stillman Valley.
This is the first in a string of ground-and-pound offenses the Dukes have coming up, and the Cardinals (3-0) do it was well as anybody.
“Their program speaks for itself. Coach [Mike] Lalor’s been there a long time. They just do things really well,” Dixon coach Jared Shaner said. “There’s a handful of teams like that in our conference, where you know what you’re going to get. Typically you don’t get surprises on either side of the ball, offensively or defensively. You just have to be able to do something about it.”
Stillman opened the season with a 15-7 overtime win over defending Class 3A state champion Byron, then beat Rock Falls 39-7 and Oregon 41-6. All three of those games featured the three-headed monster of running backs Porter Needs, Owen Zitkus and Jory Spain, which will be the focal point for Dixon’s defense on Friday night.
Needs ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon, while Spain has five touchdowns in the last two games.
“We’ve just got to do our assignments every step, we’ve got to be consistent with our defense. We just have to fill the gaps,” linebacker Aiden Wiseman said. “They’ve got a pretty good offense, we know what they’re doing, and we have a few different defenses we installed to stop their run game. They don’t really pass that often either, it’s just run, run, run, pound the ball over and over. If we’re just consistent with our jobs, we’ll be fine.”
It’s going to be a challenge for the Dukes, who haven’t seen a physical, downhill running team yet this season.
“Completely different than anything we’ve seen. If they’re not double-tight, they will be within the next couple of plays,” coach Shaner said. “They run it straight ahead; they will give it to the fullback 35 times in a game if that’s what’s working, and they’ll work off-tackle with their halfbacks 35 times a game if that’s what it is, and they’ll take some shots on the perimeter with some toss stuff, and throw it three times during the game and try to catch you sleeping.”
Offensively, Dixon might look to be a bit more balanced this week. The run-heavy attack the first three weeks has been mainly because the offensive line has controlled the line of scrimmage, and the Dukes haven’t needed to throw it much.
Wiseman has three 100-yard games, and has rushed for 406 yards and six touchdowns, and quarterback Tyler Shaner has rushed for 239 yards and thrown for 231 – but he’s run the ball 40 times, while completing half that many passes.
Tyler Shaner, for one, is looking forward to the matchup with Stillman after he struggled last season in a 20-14 loss on the road.
“Last year, I did not have a very good game against Stillman Valley; I think I went 4-for-17,” he said. “If I can throw the ball better and complete more than four passes and we run hard, I think we have a better shot.
“We just have to run hard. They play well, their linebackers and very disciplined, they don’t jump very often on the D-line. … We know what they’re going to do. It’s easy to read, it’s simple knowing what you’re seeing, we just have to execute – and do it against a very good team.”
The challenge of this week is one that the Dukes have been looking forward to since the end of last season. It’s been on their minds all through the offseason, the summer camps, the preseason practices leading up to the season.
“We’ve been talking about it since the end of last year,” coach Shaner said. “Kind of our motto this year has been ‘The Next Step,’ and the next step is beating the Stillman Valleys and Genoa-Kingstons and Byrons, because they’ve been the top of the conference for quite a while now, and the next step is winning playoff games and not just being content getting to the playoffs. We’ve been talking about that for a long time, and this is the first chance that we have to see if we’re ready to take that.”
“We’re pretty pumped up this week,” Wiseman said. “I think we’re going to be pretty ready to go Friday.”