After four road games in the past five weeks, the Sterling Golden Warriors are more than ready to return to Roscoe Eades Stadium this week for homecoming.
After three straight convincing wins to open Western Big 6 play, the Warriors (5-1, 4-0 WB6) pulled out last week’s game in Quincy in overtime to stay tied with Moline atop the conference standings.
Things don’t get any easier this week, as Quonterrion Brooks and Rock Island come calling, looking to stay just one game back of the league leaders.
“It’s nice to get back home. It’s been a fun week for our kids, with it being homecoming, so it’s an awful big chore to have Rock Island come in here,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “I think every game we’ve played has been a high-scoring game, so our defense knows that they have to play a little bit better than last week, and as good as we’ve played all year, to stop them and contain them. It’s a good challenge against a good team; they bring a lot of athletes to the table, and up front they do a really good job, too. It’s going to be a great test for us.”
Brooks is the headliner in the Rocks’ run-first offense. He has 106 rushes for 992 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Darius Tongo has 21 rushes for 223 yards and a score, and quarterback Connor Dilulio has 96 yards and four scores on 40 carries.
“They’ve got a really good running back, and when he gets out in space, it’s trouble,” Sterling senior defensive back AJ Kested said. “We know their guys up front, they love to block counter and run all the time, so as long as our linebackers and linemen get in their fits, we should be OK. We’ve got to trust our back-half guys to make plays out in space.”
Dilulio is no slouch in the passing game, either. He is 52 for 81 for 909 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Joe Allen (335 yards, 3 TDs) and Desmond Woodson (199 yards, 4 TDs) both have 13 catches, and Tongo has seven receptions for 198 yards and two scores.
After playing a Quincy team that threw the ball quite a bit last week, Kested and his fellow DBs are ready to make the adjustment back to seeing an offense that likes to run it more.
“We’ve got to have our guys be able to make their read steps, be able to stay on the balls of their feet and not get stuck into the ground, so we’re able to make plays if the receivers come out and block or if they run a route,” Kested said. “We’ve got to be ready to make a play if they run or if they pass.”
The reads are the key, Schlemmer said. Although the Rocks (4-2, 3-1 WB6) might show a lot of different formations and window dressing, they usually try to run the same plays out of the different looks.
“These guys are really good in the run game. They do a few things that they can just dress it up in a whole lot of different ways, but the scheme is very similar – but it can look a lot different,” Schlemmer said. “They do a really good job with it, so if our kids have their eyes in the wrong spot, we’re not going to be effective. We’ve got to make sure that we’re really good with our eyes and just kind of doing all the little things right.
“Sometimes I think when you say, ‘Hey, they’re going to run a specific play,’ but then you’ve got three different options off of it; it’s essentially triple-option, just in a different way these days. They do a really good job, so if they get a seam … Brooks, especially; if he catches a seam, I don’t know if we’ve got anybody that can catch him. So we’ve got to be really good on the front half.”
Since a 35-27 loss to St. Francis in Week 2, Sterling has been on a bit of a roll. The Warriors defeated Galesburg 48-21, Alleman 69-0 and Geneseo 40-0 before a 34-28 overtime win last week in Quincy.
Offensively, Sterling also will attack with the run more than the pass, but the Warriors’ ground game starts with the quarterback platoon of Kael Ryan and JP Schilling. Ryan has run 66 times for 592 yards and 11 touchdowns, and Schilling has 57 rushes for 275 yards and nine TDs.
Antonio Tablante (49 carries, 265 yards, 4 TDs), Kested (24-175, 4 TDs) and Cale Ledergerber (26-146, 2 TDs) provide a solid three-headed attack at running back.
“We’ve just got to get on our blocks, move the ball,” senior halfback Joe Marchiorato said. “I think if we get some good runs, that will open up the pass game. I know we’re focused on trying to get that better.”
The aerial attack has been complementary to the ground game this year for Sterling but has been effective at times. Schilling has thrown for 384 yards, four touchdowns and an interception on 26-of-42 passing, while Ryan has thrown for 132 yards on 11-of-28 passing.
Ledergerber (7 catches, 49 yards, TD), Isaiah Mendoza (6-130), Justin Null (6-99, 2 TDs), Mason Emin (4-71, TD), Dylan Ottens (4-67) and Tablante (4-49, TD) lead a deep group of pass-catchers who can make big plays down the field.
Marchiorato said it’s going to take strong play by all 11 offensive players to execute against a talented Rock Island defense.
“Their D-line is pretty good; they’re fast and big. They’ve got a lot of speed on the outside, and their corners are good,” he said. “They’re really fast, just a good, athletic team at every level of the defense.”
Last week, Schlemmer said it was imperative for the offense to possess the ball, convert first downs and put together longer drives to keep the potent Quincy attack off the field. The Warriors didn’t do that as consistently as he would’ve liked, and he reiterated to his players this week that every play isn’t going to be a home run, and every drive isn’t going to end up in the end zone – but every possession is a chance to get a few first downs, change the field position, and makes things easier for both the offense and defense later in the game.
“I think at times [last week] we did a good job with that, but there were too many three-and-outs, there were too many times that our offense wasn’t able to kind of flip field position,” he said. “Especially late in that second half, we got kind of tied down in our own end way too much, and we just needed to get some big plays to even move field position, so when we did have to punt, we could change that – and we weren’t able to do that at times.
“That was something we’ve talked about this week, is making sure you do as much as you can every time you get the ball. Every possession in our league, against good teams, isn’t going to be a touchdown, but you’ve got to do things positively, you’ve got to move the chains, you have to advance the football so your special teams can go out there and kind of execute what they’re doing. Those are really big things for us the next few weeks.”