Sometimes the best of friends make for the most dangerous of foes.
Marquette coach Tom Jobst and Fulton coach Patrick Michael Lower have been friends, co-coaches at Shriners All-Star Games and respected, respectful competitors since 1999, when the Tri-County and Three Rivers conferences combined to create what eventually became the Big Rivers Conference.
That rivalry lasted until 2012, when Marquette left to join the Northeastern Athletic. Fulton left the BRC last year and now is a member of the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference.
They have met on the field only once since, in the first round of the 2017 Class 1A playoffs, when the No. 11-seeded Steamers surprised No. 6 MA with a 34-16 win at Gould Stadium.
Now, at 1 p.m. Saturday, they’ll meet again on that same field via somewhat similar paths to the Round 2 Class 1A playoff contest.
“The winged-T is alive and well and living at Ottawa Marquette. The kids change, but the system doesn’t, and that’s why Coach Jobst has been so successful, a constant 9-0, 8-1, 7-2 team.”— Fulton football coach Patrick Lower
Both teams have reached this point despite significant injuries. While the Crusaders have endured the loss of several starters and are just now getting back to health, the Steamers lost quarterback Patrick Ryan Lower, the coach’s son, who was on track for 1,000 yards passing, for three games right in the heart of their playoff run.
But like Marquette, Fulton didn’t miss a beat, winning all of the games behind 400 yards passing in those games from backup QB Brayden Dykstra and the hard running of fullback Keegan VanKampen.
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Lower returned from a shoulder injury for Week 9, throwing for 112 yards in a 41-0 win over Dakota and 206 with two TDs in Round 1′s 42-0 win over Chicago Raby.
In the latter game, VanKampen, a 6-1, 230-pound three-year starter who only this year has had the full opportunity to show 1,000-yard talent, ran for two scores. On defense, at linebacker, he paced a defense that limited the Raiders to 45 yards in the first half of its second straight shutout and fifth consecutive win.
“Patrick’s got a really slick offense,” Jobst said. “It’s a really good mixture of the wing-T he started in and the spread, and they’re good at it. They have a nice, tall quarterback, a good-sized fullback, some speedy backs, some nice receivers and a nice line, plus they really mix things up well. They’re good. It won’t be fun to play against, but it sure is fun to watch.
“What it comes down to is always the line of scrimmage and not making mistakes, and this game will be no different.”
Fulton has two losses this season – a competitive 38-24 defeat to Class 3A Durand-Pecatonica in Week 3 and a 54-7 blowout to then No. 1-ranked Lena Winslow in Week 5. Their five-game winning streak includes a 24-14 decision over 8-2 Forreston.
“We’ve kinda jelled over these last five weeks and started to play really good football on both sides of the ball,” coach Lower said. “We had two stumbling blocks. Du-Pec was in control the whole game, but we stayed close enough to make them worry a little. We found out a lot about ourselves in that one. Le-Win got away from us when Patrick got hurt and everything clicked for them, but we bounced back and haven’t lost since.”
Lower knows Marquette is doing the same things it’s always done, a power wing-T with hard-running, hard-blocking offense and a tough, physical defense. Behind backs Tom Durdan (1,156 rush yards, 27 total TDs), Jurnee Reed (844 rush yards, 13 total TDs) and quarterback Alex Graham (1,216 yards, 16 TDs, 7 TDs rushing), the Crusaders are averaging 44 points and 406.1 yards of offense a game (285.6 rushing, 120.5 passing).
Freshman back Julian Alexander is doubtful to return from injury by Saturday. He will be replaced by the combo of Vinnie Battestelli, now back from a Week 1 injury, and Logan Nelson.
Defensively, MA has given up 200 yards of total offense only once since its only loss, to Deer Creek-Mackinaw, and is allowing just 104.3 total yards the past four weeks.
“The wing-T is alive and well and living at Ottawa Marquette,” the elder Lower said. “The kids change, but the system doesn’t, and that’s why coach Jobst has been so successful, a constant 9-0, 8-1, 7-2 team. I have a ton of respect for him and his players. It doesn’t matter what year you see them.
“If we play well and don’t make mistakes, I think we can stay with these guys, but if we don’t play well, they’ll run all over us like they have all their other opponents.”