Elkhart Central football coach Josh Shattuck can pinpoint where his team came up a little short against Mishawaka earlier this season.
And it may surprise you.
"We didn’t win up front,'' Shattuck said "Our offensive line did not win, and that’s the only game all year that that’s happened. We won up front even in the Penn game, which is hard to do. When you get (a running back with) a lot of 200-yard games, it means you’re winning up front. As good as Mark (Brownlee) is, it’s not like he’s throwing guys around and doing it all by himself. He’s got some pretty big holes to run through a lot of times. So we’re going to have to find a way to match their physicality up front."
Northern Indiana Conference rivals Mishawaka (7-3) and Elkhart Central (9-2) will meet again on Friday at Rice Field in a game that will mean much more than the Cavemen's 22-17 victory over Central back in September. Friday's winner in the Class 5A sectional final will advance to next Friday's regional game against either unbeaten and No. 2 Valparaiso or LaPorte.
The Blue Blazers will be looking for just the second sectional title in school history. Central beat Concord 23-14 in 2014 to win it's only other sectional championship.
The Cavemen, who beat Elkhart Memorial last week to advance to the sectional championship game, led Central 22-3 late in the third quarter of the first game, before holding on to beat the Blazers 22-17.
Central is coming off a thrilling 38-31 victory over Concord last week, where senior halfback Mark Brownlee broke the school record with 307 yards rushing, while also scoring five touchdowns. Despite missing two games this season, Brownlee is fourth in the state in both rushing (1,885) and touchdowns (30).
Add dynamic back-receiver Dom Davis and quarterback Isaiah Chandler, and the Chargers have plenty of weapons.
So the last thing Mishawaka coach Keith Kinder is going to want is a shootout like the Concord-Central game became.
"We know they'll score points because that offense is so dynamic,'' Kinder said. "Ideally, we'd like both teams to have five or six possessions in the game and then I'd like our chances. The key for us will be keeping their offense on the sidelines if we can and get some sustained drives of our own.''
WIth their option offense, the Cavemen are a team that control the football for long periods of time. However, it should help the Blue Blazers that they've seen the offense once and have an idea hot to handle it.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Fisher has thrown just 25 passes this season for the Cavemen, but he remains a top threat, leading the team in rushing with 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns. Halfback Donovan Snider (811) and fullback Drew Mason (501) carry the brunt of the load in the backfield, while Ethan Fowler remains a wildcard, averaging 8.0 yards-per-carry.
Central did a great job defensively on Snider in the first game, holding him to just 54 yards, although he scored three times on short runs.
So how do the Blue Blazers beat Mishawaka?
"First down is just huge against teams like that,'' Shattuck said. "If they’re getting four yards, you’re really in trouble. Keith’s really aggressive, and in that offense, you want to be, have to be. You have to go for it on fourth-and-2 every time, because if you’re going to run it on first-and-10 and run it on 2nd-and-6, you’re going to be in third-and-2, third-and-3 a lot, so that means fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2, and you have to go for it. Their approach changes the math. When you look at having to hold a team to (less than) 2.5 yards a carry (over four downs), it becomes about about winning first down."
• CLASS 2A: The Fairfield Falcons will be shooting for an improbable Class 2A sectional title on Friday when they travel to Eastside High School – which is just this side of the Ohio border.
Coach Matt Thacker has done a tremendous job with the Falcons, leading them to a 6-5 mark this season, just one year after a tough 0-9 year with a team loaded with freshman and sophomores.
Eastside will provide a major test for the Falcons, who have beaten Bluffton and Prairie Heights so far in the tournament. The Blazers are 9-2 this season, with their only losses coming to Adams Central (still alive in Class A) and a West Noble team that won its first 10 games, before losing to Marian in the Class 3A sectional last week. Eastside has won eight straight since starting 1-2.
The Blazers are led by quarterback Laban Davis, who has completed 90 of his 140 passes for 1,310 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Davis is also the team's second leading rusher with 579 yards, just behind running back Matt Firesine's 588.
But the strength for Eastside is a defense that has given up an average of just 11 points-a-game. Included in that impressive number is holding Fort Wayne Luers to just six points in a 13-6 victory last Friday.
Fairfield counters with a quarterback-driven offense of its own, led by Cory Lantz. The talented junior has rushed for 652 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, while also completing 43 of his 81 passes for 780 yards and seven scores.
Penn at Warsaw
Mishawaka at Elkhart Central
Jimtown at Marian
Fairfield at Eastside
All games are scheduled for 7 p.m.