Five questions that will decide the football state championship

As Mill Valley gears up to face Wichita Northwest for its third state title in five years, preview the game and read a prediction

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Five questions that will decide the football state championship

Forcing his way into the end zone, Tyler Green makes the game wining touchdown.

Forcing his way into the end zone, Tyler Green makes the game wining touchdown.

By Aubrey Beashore

Forcing his way into the end zone, Tyler Green makes the game wining touchdown.

By Aubrey Beashore

By Aubrey Beashore

Forcing his way into the end zone, Tyler Green makes the game wining touchdown.

Ben Wieland, Mill Valley News editor-in-chief

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The Jaguars are headed to their third state championship game in five years, this time against offensive powerhouse Wichita Northwest. At 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, the two teams will face off at Pittsburg State University’s football stadium for the 5A state title. These are the five questions that will define the game, as well as my prediction for how the game will turn out.

Will the Jaguar defense slow down Wichita Northwest’s spread offense? 

This matchup between a stout Jaguar defense and explosive Northwest offense will most likely decide the game. So far this season, no one’s been able to solve the Northwest offense — they’re averaging over 53 points per game, and scored an impressive 80 points against Maize in the state semifinal. 

The two gears that make Northwest’s well-oiled offensive machine work are quarterback Reagan Jones and running back Julius Bolden. The team prefers to spread the field with three wide receivers, opening up the box to give Jones and Bolden room to operate. More often than not, they take advantage. The two stars combined for a whopping 577 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in the semifinal against Maize. 

It’s worth noting that entering that semifinal, the Maize defense allowed under 11 points per game — and yet they were no match for the one-two punch of Jones and Bolden. Unfortunately for Northwest, though, Mill Valley might be the best-equipped team in the state to deal with that dynamic duo. The run defense has improved all season long, and while they allowed 241 rushing yards to Aquinas last week, they’re a much more skilled and experienced unit than the one that started the season. 

All season long, the Jaguars faced what seemed to be an endless stream of incredibly talented running backs and dual-threat quarterbacks. In just their last two games, they’ve defeated De Soto’s mobile quarterback Jackson Miller and St. Thomas Aquinas’s stud back Tank Young. 

While the team hasn’t seen a spread offense exactly like Northwest’s, the players have proven their competence at adapting to shut down star players on the ground. The Jaguar front seven is also exceptionally talented, and if they can dominate the line of scrimmage, Northwest’s offense will be forced to adapt for the first time this season

Will Tyler Green continue to dominate the run game? 

Every game, it seems like Tyler Green gets better. Last week, Green put together probably his best game of the season in the state semifinal against Aquinas. Green led all rushers, including Aquinas’s star Tank Young, with 160 yards. He also came up big at the end of the game, spearheading an 11-point comeback to tie the game in regulation and scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime. 

Since the start of the playoffs, Green has been a monster on the ground. He’s averaging 142 rushing yards per game and has been the leading rusher for both teams in all four playoff games. While he doesn’t have the athletic gifts of speedsters like Young, his footwork and vision in the backfield are unrivaled by any back in Kansas. 

Green should be able to continue his upward trajectory against Northwest, whose lone Achilles heel this season has been their run defense. Maize ran the ball well against Northwest in the state semifinal, putting up 42 points. Bishop Carroll also almost rode its run game to a victory against Northwest in their first game of the season — they put up 161 rushing yards and, if not for a fourth-quarter collapse leading to a 21-17 loss, would have knocked off Northwest. 

The stage is set for Green to manhandle Northwest’s porous run defense, but if they can find a way to slow him down, it’ll be up to the rest of the offense to lead the team to victory in what will likely be a shootout. 

Who steps up at wide receiver for the Jaguars?

At the beginning of the season, it appeared that the Jaguar offense might become reliant on its passing game. Comebacks against Bishop Miege and Aquinas were spearheaded by the team throwing the ball, and a majority of the team’s touchdowns came through the air. 

Since then, the offense has cemented its identity as a smash-mouth offense, relying on the run game to lead them to victory. Wide receivers Kendrick Jones and Ty Reishus both missed time due to injuries, and as the team’s ground game dominated, its passing game stagnated. 

The passing offense isn’t exactly struggling, but it doesn’t have anyone who’s emerged as a star yet. Wideout Jared Napoli has stepped up in the wake of injuries and become a solid target for quarterback Cooper Marsh — he hauled in four catches for 70 yards against Aquinas — but isn’t a vertical threat yet. Kendrick Jones has the talent to be a lead receiver, but hasn’t yet had a breakout game where he cements himself as Marsh’s number one option. Ty Reishus and Jacob Hartman have both proven that they have the speed to be deep threats, but neither of them have produced consistently. 

One of these four receivers is going to need to stand out against Northwest. It isn’t yet clear who that receiver will be. My money would be on either Jones or Reishus, who are the team’s two best receivers when fully healthy. 

However, against a good Northwest secondary, there’s a chance that none of these receivers establish themselves and the passing game struggles. If that happens, the team might still be able to lean on its run game to score  — but it’ll be much more difficult. 

Can Cooper Marsh limit his turnovers?

In big games this season, Marsh’s performances have been highly volatile. When he’s on, it can lead to incredible outcomes for the offense — most notably, the team’s 26-point comeback against Aquinas and their 11-point fourth quarter comeback in the state semifinal against Aquinas. However, he’s also made mistakes leading to costly turnovers — in the team’s regular season game against Aquinas, Marsh threw three interceptions, including one from the Aquinas 9 in the final minutes of the game. 

The playoffs have also been a mixed bag for Marsh. After steamrolling Topeka West and Olathe West, Marsh struggled against De Soto. The team eked out an 18-7 win, but Marsh only completed eight passes and threw an interception. Against Aquinas, though, Marsh offered another glimpse at his potential as a dual-threat quarterback who could carry the team to victories. He threw for 184 yards, ran for 126 yards and two touchdowns and handed Aquinas its first loss in 28 games. 

As Marsh goes, so goes the team. If recent trends hold and he can play as well as he did against Aquinas last week, it bodes well for the Jaguar offense. 

How does Wichita Northwest handle adversity? 

This is always one of the biggest questions entering the state championship. Usually, the team that comes out of eastern Kansas has played an incredibly difficult schedule and faced off against the best of the best in the state. Teams from western Kansas, even though they usually put up dominant numbers against their competition, haven’t faced those formidable teams yet. 

It is indisputable that Northwest’s toughest challenge of the season will be this game against the Jaguars. Their response to that adversity will determine the way the game goes. Northwest has proven its ability to pull off comeback wins — their 21-17 win over Bishop Carroll demonstrates that — but it hasn’t faced a real challenge since that game. 

When things get difficult, Mill Valley has experience battling through it. Northwest doesn’t. How much of a difference that makes, though, is unclear. 

Prediction

Northwest’s two stars, Julius Bolden and Reagan Jones, are simply too talented to contain for a whole game. Against a Mill Valley defense that revealed its vulnerability to long run plays last week, they should be able to put together at least a few highlight plays.

Tyler Green, Cooper Marsh and Quin Wittenauer should also keep up their dominance on the ground. Mill Valley should be able to stick to its ground game and bully their way down the field against a weak Northwest run defense. 

Ultimately, it comes down to how well Cooper Marsh and the Jaguar receivers perform. If they can put together a mistake-free game and put together some successful plays downfield, which I believe they will, then the Jaguars should take home their third state title in four years. 

Mill Valley 38 – Wichita Northwest 28

 

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