There's no beat of hesitation when asked to assess Newton -- Pana coach Trevor Higgins went right to Mitch Bierman.
"I think Mitch Bierman is about the same as (Jacob) Dixon from Carlinville. I think they're both fighting for a spot on the all-state team," Higgins said. "He's really fast, and has great field vision."
It's hard to miss the Newton senior running back, one that's demolished every defense he's come across this season.
But as good as Bierman is, Higgins thinks his defense has seen one that's comparable. There's a starting point in Dixon for the Panthers in how to slow him down.
Dixon's numbers are comparable -- 2,169 yards to Bierman's 2,376, although Bierman has 28 less carries. And although Pana held Dixon to his lowest yards per carry (4.9) of the season, he still ran for 176 yards.
Higgins knows Bierman's probably landing at least 30 carries, and although they kept Dixon out of the end zone, Pana wants to go a step further against Bierman.
"We're basically treating him the same way we did with Dixon," he said. "Obviously, when we played Dixon we didn't do a very job yardage-wise."
Teams in some closed conferences like the Little Illini or South Central don't always receive the benefit of the doubt of how good their team or top players can be, but Bierman's 30 carry, 276 yard performance against Auburn might have turned a few more heads across the state.
Fulton knows, though. He's seen Bierman since he started as a freshman. And Fulton's seen Bierman continually update his game, with a healthy dose of quickness added this year. Bierman runs the sprints in track, and Fulton sees his work with coach Todd Short paying off again in the fall.
"He's really bought in the speed program," Fulton said. "I think Mitch is good because he's so involved. He doesn't just concentrate on one sport."
It helps that the offensive line in front of Bierman is mostly the same from last year. Fulton's seen a jump in play, especially from lineman Wade Frohning.
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"He's emerged as great pull guy. He has great athleticism for somebody's who's 6-3, 290," Fulton said. "He's a big kid who runs well. Coming into the season, weren't sure what he was going to be capable of, and Wade's emerged as really good player for us."
Fulton's also seen leadership and elevated play from Gabe Fulton, his son and now a three-year starting center.
"I have to be a coach and a dad here, but Gabe has been fantastic this year," Fulton said. "He's made a huge difference and does a great job in opening up the inside run game, the truck game."
With an experienced line in front of him, Bierman's averaging an astounding 12.5 yards per carry. They've done that no matter who's at running back though -- Newton's averaging 8.9 ypc as a team, and has a total of 56 touchdowns.
After twisting his knee against Vandalia, Ian Harbert looked normal again in the second half against Marshall last week.
Harbert, who leads the team with 690 yards, finished with 90 yards last week and had much of that in the second half.
But between Jacob Beeson, Jack Clark and Dalton Anderson, there are options for Pana has to run the ball. Having Harbert back on defense may be a little more valuable -- he leads the team with 101 tackles.
"He is one of those tough-nosed kids," Higgins said. "He just slides to the ball. Whenever we need to make a big play, we can count on him."
Fulton said seeing Pana's 14-point comeback opened his eyes, and Beeson's ability to extend plays in the pocket is what's popped on film.
"I think they're fast, pretty quick. I think they definitely have some really good team speed," Fulton said. "They're not as physical as Auburn, but they make up for that with speed."