Spring Grove, Verndale 2 of state's top Nine-Man teamsState Football: Opponents
Right off the bat, football fans will get a No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup Friday as top-ranked Spring Grove faces No. 3 Verndale in the Nine-Man state quarterfinals.
Spring Grove was ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll as well as in the Quality Results Formula. Verndale held the No. 3 spot in both rankings.
Both teams enter with an 11-0 record. Spring Grove's last state trip was in 2011. This will be the third state trip for the Lions, who outscored opponents 48.5 to 18.7.
Of Spring Grove's 11 victories, four came against the two teams that competed in last year's state Prep Bowl.
Spring Grove defeated defending champion Grand Meadow 33-20 during the regular season and again 40-17 in the playoffs. The Lions defeated Cleveland 52-51 in Week One and again in the Section 1 final 36-35.
"We've gotten quite a bit of recognition and I think it's because of the section that we played in this year was pretty strong and it was a pretty big battle to get out of it," Spring Grove head coach Zach Hauser said. "To have four wins against the two teams that were in the Prep Bowl last year obviously gives us some attention, but our guys are confident because of winning some big games, but they know that at anytime our season could be over unless we play well."
Verndale is back in the state tournament for the first time since 2009. It's the 16th state trip for the two-time state champions, who dominated opponents to the tune of a 49.2 to 12.9 average point differential.
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Verndale vs. Spring Grove
- What: Nine-Man state quarterfinals
- When: 7 p.m. Friday
- Where: Buffalo High School
- Who: Verndale Pirates (11-0) vs. Spring Grove Lions (11-0)
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"I think our defensive line is bigger than they are," Verndale head coach Mike Mahlen said. "They have some height, but weight-wise we're a little bit bigger than they are up front. Our defensive line has to control their line and make the play on the quarterback. We need to tackle him and get to him early. We can't depend on our linebackers getting him down every time one on one. Our defensive line is going to have to play their best game of the year and really try to control that line of scrimmage."
The Lions roster two 1,000-yard rushers in junior quarterback Alex Folz (1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns on 170 carries) and senior running back Cullen Patterson (1,076 and 15 TDs on 107 carries.
Folz has also thrown for 1,732 yards and 25 touchdowns on 116 of 197 passing. His top targets are junior receiver Noah Elton, who has 39 catches for 588 yards and eight TDs. Senior Sam Sanness has six touchdown receptions and 408 yards on 21 total catches.
"(Folz) gives us a big advantage because he's really good at throwing and running," Hauser said. "But so is (Verndale quarterback) Mack Jones. We were kind of talking about the style of player that Mack Jones is and we teased our quarterback that we found his long, lost brother. I've never seen two kids so similar in style competing at the same level.
"They are just so similar. I think they are both maybe better runners than they are passers, but they both have very strong arms as well."
Folz handles the punting and kicking and is the team's third-leading tackler with 79 tackles and four interceptions. Elton has three interceptions and 74 tackles, while senior Taylor Holty leads the team with 125 tackles.
"Their quarterback likes to run the ball that's for sure," Mahlen said. "He carries the ball quite a few times a game. I think he's a good passer, too. You have to stop his run. Their running back is quick. He's a good little runner, but the quarterback seems to carry the ball most of the time. They run a little read-type option deal. But obviously you have to stop that running back, too, because he's got good quickness."
Similar to Spring Grove, Jones leads the Pirates in rushing and passing. Jones has 1,011 yards and 19 touchdowns on 126 carries and has thrown for 1,692 yards and 21 scores on 88-for-156 passing.
Verndale senior Luke Weniger has rushed for 746 yards and six scores and owns 32 catches for 667 yards and 10 scores.
Josh Bounds, who carried 22 times for 92 yards in the Pirates' Section 4 victory over Brandon-Evansville, has 438 yards and 10 scores.
Samuel Moore, a North Dakota State University recruit, has 20 catches for 486 yards and four scores.
"We'll need to stop their run game," Hauser said. "Verndale's offensive line is huge. We haven't played a team quite as big as them. Houston, down here by us, has some pretty big linemen, too, but maybe not as big across the board as what Verndale has. It's going to be really important to be quick off of the ball and shut down that run game that they've got going."
Bounds leads the team with 82 tackles to go with two interceptions. Weniger leads the team with four interceptions.
"We're hoping Jones is healthy enough to run the ball more," Mahlen said. "In the big games all year, he's carried the ball 20 to 25 times. We've been limiting that a little bit, but hopefully he'll carry the ball more Friday.
"Hopefully we can get another good running game out of Josh and Luke like we did at the Fargodome. That was a big key for us there. Josh had a really good game for us."