Friday night was a battle of two Class 5 state-ranked football teams as No. 2 Jackson hosted No. 4 Eureka in the quarterfinals with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
Thanks to their running game and defensive play, the Indians came away with a 29-14 win over the Wildcats for their first quarterfinal win in the last 11 years. Ironically, Jackson defeated Eureka 10-7 to reach the semifinals back in 2008.
“We had a couple of breaks that went our way,” Jackson head coach Brent Eckley said. “Offensively, we just did enough — we weren’t real sharp, but our kids really competed on all phases. I thought our guys played really hard, really tough and really physical.”
Jackson brought the physicality on the offensive end with a total of 50 rushing attempts out of the team’s 74 plays as junior quarterback Cael Welker carried the ball a career-high 27 times. Welker recorded a game-high 153 yards along with two rushing touchdowns.
“We don’t want to make a habit of [Welker running the ball so much], but in these situations that’s what we needed to do,” Coach Eckley said. “At the tail end, we might not have needed to have him run, but it’s nice to be able to get a first down and salt the game away.”
Senior running back Seth Waters scored two rushing touchdowns of his own off 18 attempts with 87 yards.
Welker also completed 14 of his 24 passing attempts (58.3%) for 178 yards but failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in his career as Jackson’s starter. Sophomore wide receiver Kannen Turley came up with a game-high 79 receiving yards and three catches, while junior wide receiver Rhet Liley hauled in 57 yards with five receptions.
The Indians offense was also back with one of their star wide receivers in senior Luke Starzinger, who netted 42 yards on five touches.
“To be the team that breaks that streak feels really, really good,” Welker said. “[Being run heavy] was the game plan coming in with their defense because we knew how it was.”
Jackson’s offensive line was tasked with blocking players like Eureka senior Josh Baker, who stands at 6-foot-3, weighs 285 pounds and is committed to play football at the University of Arizona. Baker plays both ways for the Wildcats, so the defensive line was also tasked with facing him as well.
“[Our offensive] did really, really good tonight,” Welker said. “Their d-lineman up front are big, and we put in bigger bodies during practice this week to help them. I thought they performed really well, and I was able to see the hole and run.”
Both lines managed just fine, though, since the offense totaled 445 yards while the defense held Eureka to 233 yards of total offense as only 97 came on the ground.
The Indians kept their streak of not allowing a team to have a 100-yard rusher this season as the Wildcats leader in the run game was senior Marvin Brown, who gained most of his yards filling in for starting quarterback junior Carter Davis.
Brown was able to have some success as he scored a 3-yard touchdown after completing a 30-yard pass to senior wide receiver Dax Dubroc inside Jackson’s own 5-yard line.
“[Brown] was starting for them at another spot, so I thought our defense did a really good job rallying to him as well,” Coach Eckley said. “That’s tough some times when you get another guy in that’s really a difference maker. You have to be ready to make that adjustment.”
Davis only finished with 14 yards on the ground and went 9-for-14 passing (64.2) with 103 yards and a touchdown, but he was unable to finish the game since he suffered a fractured ankle in the third quarter.
This was when Davis scrambled out of the pocket and tried to gain a first down with his feet, but he was pulled down by junior inside linebacker Bryce Norman for a short gain. Davis had to be taken off the field with a stretcher after the play.
“They were a very good offense, and they came out and played really physical,” Norman said. “We had some big plays and a good turnover, and we just dominated on defense. … It was pretty hard to contain their athletes, but I think we did a good job swarming to the ball.”
Swarm to the ball the Indians did as Norman recorded a game-high 21 tackles along with one sack and a tackle for a loss. He also recorded a safety in the fourth quarter with under five minutes to go after Welker pinned the Wildcats inside their own 5-yard line with a punt.
Pacing Norman in tackles was none other than junior outside linebacker Randol McDowell, who finished the game with 20 tackles, one tackle for a loss and one forced fumble.
McDowell and Norman are the top two tacklers for Jackson this season as Bryce has recorded 150 while Randol is right behind him with 149. They have also combined for 47 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 20 points.
“I think Randol and I are the dynamic duo in Missouri for linebackers right now,” Norman said. “It’s really fun getting to play with my best friend.”
McDowell’s forced fumble came at a crucial moment during the game in the third quarter when Eureka’s offense was at Jackson’s 37-yard line as the Wildcats only trailed the Indians 14-7.
The fumble was recovered by junior outside linebacker Garner Horman at the Indians 28-yard line, which Jackson’s offense turned into points as Welker scored a 1-yard touchdown run to cap off a 12-play, 78-yard drive.
“That was huge, too, getting the turnover and then turning it into points was outstanding,” Coach Eckley said. “Our defense has been lights out all season.”
The Indians first scoring drive was also a lengthy one that took seven plays to cover 91 yards, where Welker scored his first rushing touchdown of the game with 1:27 left in the first quarter. The drive began with a 30-yard pass play from Welker to Turley on a pump fake.
“[Turley making plays] was huge, and we have [Starzinger] back,” Welker said. “He made some plays, so it felt really good because our game plan was to run the ball, but if we needed to get out of a third down and pass the ball we can still do that.”
Jackson failed to score on its first two drives of the game as the Indians turned the ball over on downs both times, but the defense bailed them out as they forced Eureka’s offense to two-straight three-and-outs.
Eureka did not score its first points until its fourth drive of the game in the second quarter off a 15-play, 82-yard drive when Davis connected with junior wide receiver Tommy Davis for a 4-yard touchdown. The drive took over six minutes off the clock.
Up 14-7 with under one minute left in the second quarter until halftime, Jackson’s offense was able to get the ball with 58 seconds left on the clock. However, the Indians came up short after getting inside Eureka’s 5.
“I didn’t call good enough plays in that situation,” Eckley said. “There were a couple other things I could’ve went with, but we just didn’t. It wasn’t players and it wasn’t player’s execution, it was play calling. I’ve got to do better there because it really cost us in the redzone. That should’ve been a difference maker for us, and it would’ve made the game comfortable in the second half.”
The Indians will travel to Kansas City this Saturday to take on No. 7 ranked Staley (10-2) with a trip to the Class 5 State Championship on the line. The Falcons advanced to with a 30-14 win over No. 8 Raytown (9-3) on Saturday.
The Falcons offense has only averaged 28 points per game while their defense is nearly on par with Jackson’s by only allowing 13.7 points each game. The Indians have only given up 9.3 points as the offense has scored 49.4.
Coach Eckley has never coached in a state championship game, and Jackson has not played at state in 24 years, which was back when the Indians fell Camdenton 20-19 in 1995.
The winner will face No. 1 Ft. Zumwalt West (12-0) or No. 5 Carthage (10-2) for the state title at Faurot Field in Columbia.