CHURUBUSCO – Prairie Heights has often struggled on the football field this season, as the Panthers are winless heading into their fifth week. When you muster a measly eight points per game of offense, it is going to be difficult to prevail very often, and unfortunately, they have picked the absolute wrong opponent to face Friday.
Churubusco will roll into LaGrange at 7 p.m. and with it the Eagles will pack one of the most challenging defenses not just in the NECC, but the entire state.
“Our kids are playing really fast,” veteran Churubusco coach Paul Sade said following his team's most recent victory, a 28-9 thumping of traditionally strong Eastside last week in Churubusco.
The Blazers entered the game averaging nearly 19 points per game and had beaten the Eagles three consecutive seasons, but Sade's staff put together a strategy that made Eastside a one-dimensional attack that didn't work once it got into the red zone.
Blazer quarterback Caleb Ballentine was able to complete 66 percent of his passes for 209 yards, but the Eastside rushing attack was limited to barely two yards per carry and the 'Busco defense forced three Blazer turnovers.
“Our defensive staff has come up with some really good defensive schemes,” Sade said.
The work of those coaches hasn't been just a one-week wonder either.
Churubusco is allowing less than 10 points per game, which is the 26th stingiest defense in the entire IHSAA, in any class. If you look at just Class A, only six teams are more ferocious on that side of the ball.
“We're playing a lot of teams that are bigger than us,” Sade said, “for our kids to fly around and play hard, they are going to have to make solid contact every play.”
Through four games, the Eagles have racked up over 300 tackles, including almost 30 that went for a loss.
Senior linebacker Austin Lehman is averaging 10 tackles per game; while sophomore defensive lineman Reese Wicker has a team-best 7 ½ tackles for a loss (including three sacks).
The Eagles have been solid against the run this season, but in Friday's win, they needed their secondary to be effective against the arm (and legs) of Ballantine, an extremely athletic senior quarterback, who is able to get into the second level of a defense often.
“We put some pressure on (Ballantine),” Sade explained, “and made him a little uncomfortable at times. Obviously, he is a great athlete. He's a great runner. He's hard to contain.”
Ballantine was coming off a week in which he had averaged six yards per carry in a hard-fought 9-8 win over West Noble, but the 'Busco defense kept him in check at less than three yards per carry. But Sade was even more impressed with the play of his defensive backs.
The Eagle defenders often bent against Ballantine's ability, but once the Blazers got into Churubusco territory, the Eastside defense mostly stalled.
“(Defensive back) Joey Emenhiser did a really good job of keeping (Eastside receiver) Aaron Dean from getting open,” Sade said. “Our defensive backs, as a whole, did a really good job. Eastside has some very talented receivers.”
The Blazers had averaged 25 points per game against 'Busco over the past three seasons, so to limit the Blazers to one touchdown was impressive. The play this season has been reminiscent of Sade's talented 2013 squad, which held six opponents to single digits en route to an 8-3 record.
Emenhiser, Lehman and Wicker have been joined by guys like junior linebacker Parker Curry (37 tackles), senior defensive back Trevor Holloway (31 tackles), senior linebacker Mason Anderson (27 tackles) and sophomore defensive back Gage Kelly (three interceptions) to boost Churubusco (4-0) to first place in the Small Division of the league race.
“We're going to have to play fast,” Sade continued, “and we've done a pretty good job of that the last couple of weeks.”
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