TUSCOLA — Eight weeks ago, Tuscola got its first taste of trying to control St. Teresa sophomore running back Denim Cook.
Cook ran for 216 yards and two touchdowns as the Bulldogs beat the Warriors 28-12 in a crucial Central Illinois Conference matchup. It was Cook’s first 200-yard rushing performance of his career and he has gone on to rush for 1,514 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, becoming the area’s second-leading rusher.
But Warriors coach Andy Romine doesn’t see all negative in that earlier meeting as he prepares his team to head back to St. Teresa (9-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m. for their Class 2A second round playoff game.
“Outside of the first offensive play they ran, which was a 56-yard touchdown run for Denim, we made them earn everything they got," Romine said. :There were no big runs and they had to earn it.
"We were within a score in the fourth quarter and that's what we have to do on Saturday — get it into the fourth quarter and give us a punter's chance.
“I know this — our kids think and believe that they can win the game.”
The first St. Teresa meeting was devastating for the Warriors. They lost two senior two-way starters — center and defensive tackle Max Wyninger and wide receiver and corner Ben Dixon — to season-ending injuries. Senior defensive lineman and running back Ashton Jones was lost for the season the following week, and junior lineman Hans Goodman has been hospitalized with a non-football injury.
But the Warriors (8-2) have persevered after losing back-to-back games against Central A&M and Bulldogs and are now on a six-game winning streak, including a first round playoff win against Flora, 42-14.
“I think the one thing for us is that it speaks to our depth," Romine said. "You lose that number of kids and teams are cancelling JV seasons, but we tell our kids all the time in our huddles that there is somebody here that has no idea that they will play a big role. You have to prepare every rep and every day that you are going to be that person. We have three or four players right now that will play huge roles for us on Saturday.”
Two seniors Romine will depend on to slow down Cook will be middle linebacker Jonah Pierce and defensive end Josh Dyer.
“The key for us is that we have to be good on first down and we have to get them into third-and-longs and then we have to be able to get them off the field,” Romine said. “In terms of getting us lined up and and then making plays in space, Jonah is our guy. (Josh) gives no ground and is very good against double teams. He's the guy that we focus on in keeping our linebackers free from getting blocked.”
Despite the injuries, Dyer said the team has improved and will be ready on Saturday.
“It should be a dog fight," Dyer said. "We didn't execute well enough last time and we had too many mental mistakes. We've been practicing with a high intensity to get those cleared up this time. We are feeling good and we have to get a lot of guys on (Denim) and wear him down.”
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St. Teresa interchanges two quarterbacks into their game plan — junior Chord Miller and senior Jack Hogan — but Romine isn’t game-planning differently for who is under center.
“We have our play calling tendencies for when Miller is in the game vs. when Hogan is in the game, but I would say that they are both comparable quarterbacks and (St. Teresa) doesn’t do a lot different with them,” Romine said. “They both throw the ball very well and Hogan looks better now than he did a few weeks back on his wheel.”
Waiting in the backfield for an errant pass from Miller or Hogan will be Warriors defensive back Jalen Quinn, who has come down with nine interceptions this season. In total, the Warriors have been pick-happy, intercepting 19 balls, including two pick-6s.
“(Jalen) is a stud,” Pierce said. “He's one of those weapons that is impossible to stop.”
The Warriors will be zeroed-in on Cook and looking to force someone else on the Bulldogs to step up.
“We know (Denim) is going to get the football and if we do a really good job of containing Denim and slowing him down and somebody else on their team makes enough plays to beat us then we will tip our hat to them and say you had the better football team that day,” Romine said.
As a senior, Pierce doesn’t want his football career to end on Saturday.
Said Pierce: “It's one of those things that you have to step up and fill the expectations of the town, the coaches and your family. You have to be ready to play and perform up to those expectations.”