When Eudora High’s football players line up against Holton today in the Class 4A state championship game — 1 p.m. kickoff at Salina Central High — they will see a team similar to their own.
Much like the Cardinals (12-1), the Wildcats (13-0) have one basic offensive objective: to steamroll their opponent with rushing play after rushing play.
EHS junior quarterback Andrew Ballock (796 passing yards, eight touchdowns) drops back to throw a bit more than his Holton counterpart, senior Jaxon Wright, but both have spent far more time handing off the football or keeping it themselves than looking for a receiving target.
While Ballock (1,215 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns) is Eudora’s leading rusher, Wright has taken a back seat to Holton’s 1-2 running-back punch of junior Drake Ewing and senior Cameron Karn, both of whom average more than seven yards a carry.
Eudora coach Gregg Webb, whose team has allowed just 7.7 points a game this season, said the Cardinals must eliminate Holton first downs and play exceptional defense if they want to leave Salina with the program’s first state title.
“They’re trying to get three yards a carry, and they just pound it at you until you finally break,” Webb said of the Wildcats, who average 46.2 points a game.
The coach added: “If our defensive line is just getting pushed and mauled, then we have no chance.”
Senior Cardinals linebacker Gabe Cleveland said his team knows what to expect — a never-ending bombardment of runs up the middle — from Holton.
“Our defense has been pretty good all year,” Cleveland said, “but we’re gonna have to play our best game. We’ll just have to be tough.”
Ballock, a starting safety for Eudora with 58 total tackles and eight interceptions, said facing an offense with tendencies similar to the Cardinals’ (21.7 points a game) should be interesting.
“They’re gonna line up and try to beat you up,” Ballock said. “If we can stop their offense, which will be tough, we’ll be all right.”
A significant part of limiting Holton’s offensive activity, Webb said, will come when EHS has the ball.
If the Cardinals find themselves punting or limited to three-and-out possessions, the coach said, they have no shot at knocking off the Wildcats. Picking up first downs, he added, will keep Holton off the field.
“If we can hold them under 60 snaps, we’ll have a chance,” Webb said.
Offensive production has been impossible to find for some Holton opponents this season.
The Wildcats have allowed just 10.6 points a game, and though they edged McPherson, 31-27, in the quarterfinals, they have won every other game this season by at least 22 points and held 10 opponents to 14 points or less.
Eudora has won seven straight games — all by 13 points or more — entering its second straight championship game appearance, and Cleveland said the Cardinals seem to get better by the week.
“We don’t necessarily have the biggest kids ever, but we just play tough,” he said.
Cleveland is Eudora’s No. 2 rushing option of late, with 777 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, which included a three-game stretch in which he sat out because of a knee injury.
Senior running back Garret Elston has 922 rushing yards of his own, as well as three scores.
When the Cardinals pass the ball, seniors Nick Becker (248 receiving yards, five touchdowns), Markis Hill (226 yards, three touchdowns) and Tanner Tornedon (204 yards, two touchdowns) have been Ballock’s top targets.
On defense, Eudora’s Hill, Cleveland, Becker, Steven Simpson and Skyler Manley each has at least 70 total tackles. Defensive linemen Becker and Eric Rogers have combined for 11.5 sacks. Ballock, Elston, JT Howell and Mason Tomlinson all have proven reliable defenders in the secondary.
Though Eudora lost, 21-0, to Rose Hill in the 2011 championship game, Webb said his players take pride in focusing on their responsibilities on each particular play.
He said they minimize big-picture thinking and aren’t worried about something that happened a year ago.