An old commercial from the 1980s for Slumberland or some such company said: "Make no mistake about it folks-this is the big one." That slogan could easily be adopted for Friday's Le Mars Community/MOC-Floyd Valley football game as the Bulldogs and the Class 3A no. 5-ranked Dutch collide in a matchup that could very well decide each team's district and playoff fate.
Last week the Bulldogs scored a big 34-7 win over then seventh-ranked Humboldt. Humboldt came into the game leading the district in offensive points per game and defensive points allowed per game and were favored to beat Le Mars on its home field. Nothing has changed for this week. The Bulldogs' win over Humboldt propelled MOC-Floyd Valley into those top positions in the district and the Dutch will come into Friday's game with a district-best offensive output of 30 points per game, leading in defensive points per game as well at 9.9. Humboldt still owns the no. 2 slot in both those categories, while the Bulldogs sit at third at 28.3 offensive points per game and 11.5 points allowed per game.
Le Mars has had to overcome more through the first six games of the season on the injury front than most teams have in a full season. Heading into a second-straight must-win game against a ranked opponent could put a certain degree of strain on the thinned out Bulldog lineup, but head coach Jim Boyd doesn't feel the strain at all. Actually, the coach is rather enjoying the situation.
"It's fun. I told the kids last week I really looked forward to that game because they were rated in that state. We're the underdog. We're on our own field. It's homecoming. What could be better," said Boyd. "Now here we go again. We got a home game. We got the no. 5 team coming in and we got everything to win and really not much to lose. If I could write a script, this is where I'd like to be."
Still, Boyd knows coming back from a 7-6 halftime deficit to beat Humboldt was one thing. Beating MOC-Floyd Valley in a similar situation will be a different story. Humboldt is relatively knew to the upper echelon of the district and folded somewhat under the Bulldogs' second-half onslaught. Le Mars can ill-afford to be in a similar come-from-behind scenario against the Dutch.
"We really need to get off to a good start," said Boyd. "I don't like trailing going into the second half."
The Bulldog defense held up its end of the deal in the first half against Humboldt, holding the Wildcats to just one score. It was the offense that let Le Mars down in the first two quarters. Scoring opportunities were squandered by mistakes, including an interception by quarterback Brandon Phelan, but Boyd is confident that those kinds of mistakes are quickly becoming things of the past. Phelan ran in a two-point conversion in the second half against Humboldt and that may have been the trigger than needed tripping to get Phelan thinking the right way about running the offense-react, don't think.
"I thought he played much better after he threw that interception," said Boyd. "I really think he got his act together, regrouped, ran the ball in the option well, audibled and threw well. He just did an outstanding job of coming back. It's like being in a pressure cooker and the release valve went off. He got the monkey of his back right there. He saw it, he did it."
The much-maligned Bulldog defense got a lift from a pair of sophomores last week that have Boyd excited. Chris Campbell stepped in at linebacker and led the team in tackles, while Corey Hoffman took over defensive tackle duties for hobbled Trevor Oetken. Boyd said that starting sophomores at the varsity level has its pitfalls, but the pluses have outweighed the drawbacks so far.
"(Campbell) brings excitement. Does he make mistakes? Yeah, he makes plenty of mistakes. But a young kid will. I can't recall ever having a sophomore linebacker start. It's usually something you have to learn over a period of years, so he catches on pretty quick and he's got good speed and we like that," said Boyd. "(Hoffman) does exactly what we ask of him. He reminds me of a badger. Squatty and low. You can't block him. This is the smallest guy out there and he draws a double team. That tells you how tough he is."
The defense was able to shut down the district's leading rusher in C.J. Almond, not by focusing on taking him away specifically, but by picking up on Humboldt's patterns.
"We didn't really focus on Almond. We focused on the guards. The guards in that wing-t take you right to where the play is. That was our key and that's what our linebackers read," said Boyd. "Every team has a tendancy and a key that they will indicate to you. We just have to figure out what it is and take advantage of it."
Le Mars will face another outstanding player Friday in MOC-Floyd Valley quarterback Matt Roesner. Roesner is second in the district in passing with 715 yards and third in rushing with 506 yards. Boyd said that the Bulldogs may take a different approach this week and key more on Roesner as an individual.
"He's a good quarterback. He can run the ball, he can throw the ball," said Boyd. "He's a playmaker and he makes things happen. I think that's our key. We need to focus on him and slow him down a little bit."
The Dutch will mirror the Bulldogs' offensive style with power football and the option. On defense, MOC-Floyd Valley will line up in a 5-3, while Le Mars runs a 5-2. The Bulldogs faced a 5-2 blitzing team in Spencer two weeks ago and had great success in picking up the blitz. Doing so against a 5-3 will be a different kind of challenge, said Boyd.
"With this 5-3, they're going to do a lot of blitzing. What we've been working on is picking up the blitz," said Boyd. "We've been going to zone blocking schemes so we can make that adjustment a lot easier. Spencer was a 5-2 team and that's a little easier to pick up than a 5-3. It's hard to account for that extra person in the box."
Boyd hopes by successfully picking up the eight-man rush, the passing game will be opened up for Phelan and the Bulldog receiving corps.
Five teams come into this week tied atop the district with 3-1 records, including the Bulldogs and the Dutch. With three games remaining and the race so tight at the top, Le Mars can afford nothing less than a win.
"It's really all or nothing," said Boyd. "If you want a piece of the pie, you've got to win. For a district championship or a playoff berth, you've got to win."
Those implications, mixed with the history of this rivalry, is why Le Mars and MOC-Floyd Valley will be the feature game in the district this week.
"It's going to be a physical football game featuring two good defenses, two offenses that feature the power and option. We're very similar in every respect and when you're close together like this with two great schools and facilities, you're going to produce winners all the time," said Boyd. "20 minutes down the road. They're going to bring everybody to this game. I wish we had another 2,000 seating capacity. The town will be here. It's going to be a big shootout."
Having so many bodies in the opposing bleachers may somewhat negate home field advantage for the Bulldogs, but home field advantage is really only what you make it, according to Boyd. The coach said that any situation Le Mars is in can be used as an advantage if sold to the players in the right way.
"If we're playing at home, I tell the kids it's a great advantage. If we're playing away, I tell them it's a great advantage because we're in the bus trip and we're focused," said Boyd. "The psychology of that-what you think, how you believe things-plays a big part in a football game. So instead of taking the negative and focusing on that, I focus on the positive. If it was raining and windy, I say, "Hey, this is our game. This is exactly what we want." If you get the to believe the gods are smiling on them, then they usually come and play for you pretty well."