By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Rest assured, Hilldale’s defense is confident when it comes to containing big-time running backs.
Way back in week two, the Hornets held Fort Gibson’s Jake Gandara under 100 yards for only the second time this season (28 carries, 98 yards).
This week it’s another 2,000-yard rusher in Tanner Smith and Verdigris, and the stakes are bigger. At stake is a berth in the Class 3A quarterfinals when the Hornets, unranked in the final regular season Associated Press poll, and the No. 3 Cardinals bring identical 10-1 marks to the clash at Hornet Field in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
And the Hornets certainly wouldn’t mind the scoreboard outcome being the opposite of the night Gandara led the Tigers to a 21-12 non-district win and with Sequoyah’s forfeiting their game against Hilldale, the Hornets’ only loss of 2012.
“There’s certainly a difference in styles,” Hilldale coach Chad Kirkhart said. “Jake’s got an edge on speed and Smith’s got a little bit of power combined with the ability to juke you in the open field. He’s more physical and will run over you and he’s also got a kid in the backfield with him that you don’t want to ignore.”
Smith has 2,178 yards and 31 touchdowns, The other guy, J.D Hanslovan, has three 100-yard games, including 139 against Morris last week, and 947 yards rushing on the season.
Both, but certainly Smith, have the Hornets’ attention this week.
"He’s a well-rounded runner,” said Hilldale nose guard Justin Sanders. “We contained Gandara but they also had a passing element. This offense is geared more toward smashmouth style where they don’t throw much at all.”
It’s made life fun for guys like Cardinals right guard Dalton Inman.
“I’ve been blocking a while for Tanner but both are good. Tanner, he’s just amazing. He gives you a second chance if you miss a block because he keeps going, he can break tackles and outrun people.”
Inman at 6-foot-4, 280 pounds is the biggest of a line that significantly outmatches the Hornets’ three-man front in size.
“They’re not particularly big or as big as teams we’ve faced but they’re fast and that’s a concern that hopefully we’ll be able to handle. But they’re definitely good at flying to the football,” Inman said.
Sanders, at 6-0, 183, will line up opposite Inman.
“I usually use my speed but this guy is a big guy who happens to be a fairly skilled lineman and in that respect, I’m going to have to bust the holes and let Josh (Giem) do some work,” Sanders said.
Giem, the Hornets’ inside linebacker, represents the second wave of defense on plays up the middle.
“You can’t just arm tackle him. You’ve got to hit him up high and drive,” he said. “I’m planning on meeting him in the hole several times.
“They throw the ball maybe five times a game. It would be great if we could force them to beat us that way but we know they’ve been pretty successful running the ball so it’s going to be a challenge, no doubt.”
Smith assessed the Hornets’ defenders this way.
“There’s nothing that just stands out big-time to me. They’re just a well-rounded, quality unit that gives a lot of effort, plays with heart and plays to the whistle,” he said.
What’s clear to Kirkhart is this is a battle that will be won by what happens in the ground game. His team is also riding the momentum of the school’s first-ever playoff shutout with the 35-0 win over Checotah last week.
“Every week one of the first things you go in thinking is you have to stop the run. Well with them that’s all they do,” he said. “Against Sperry (Verdigris’ regular season finale) they ran the ball at one point 39 straight times. When you have not just one but two guys who are as physical as those guys are it’s going to be a challenge, which is what you expect at this time of the year anyway.
“But I think we’re at a place defensively where I feel like we’ll keep it a low scoring game just because we’ve been playing well. If we’re wrong, well, we’ve just got to go match them.
Outside linebacker Jamaul Cullom, whose job will be to force the action inside, has seen the defense be resilient throughout the year, including injuries here and there.
“We’ve lost some people and you know, every week we’ve come out here and prepared like we needed to, studied film like we’ve needed to and performed like we needed to,” he said. “I think we’ll be up to the task.”
In case they aren’t, his work at running back himself will prove critical.
“If we have to I think we could score some points but I’d rather just go out there and do our job defensively and let that dictate things,” he said.
Should Hilldale prevail, they could get a third home playoff game if Madill defeats Blanchard tonight. By winning, Blanchard would host the Hornets.
3A second round
No. 3 Verdigris at Hilldale.
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
Webcast: www.ihigh. com/vypethreerivers (find the appropriate link at the top of page).