Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge coach Matt Johnson and Peoria Centennial coach Richard Taylor can agree on at least two things.
First, the fact that their Division II state football matchup Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium is a regular season rematch adds no extra juice to an already-hyped game. Second, it won’t be anything like last time.
Two months ago, Ironwood Ridge upset then top-ranked Centennial 28-24. Ironwood Ridge forced six turnovers — including four fumbles — and sacked Centennial quarterback Tre’von Grant seven times.
That loss forced Centennial (12-1) to do some soul searching.
“At the time, I think, we were 17th in the nation, and as coaches and players, we were beginning to believe that,” Taylor said. “They taught us different real fast.”
Grant, who threw two interceptions and lost three of four fumbles, returned to practice with renewed dedication. Centennial worked tirelessly on blitz pickup and ball security.
Most weeks of practice, Centennial does one ball security drill a day. The week after losing to Ironwood Ridge, Taylor bumped that to three, including a monkey roll drill where players jump over laterally over each other with the ball and land on their chests.
“What you really want to do is kind of catch your fall, and you’ve got to make your mind to hold onto the football,” Taylor said. “They don’t like that very much.”
Centennial hasn’t lost a fumble since.
That’s a statistic with which Johnson is likely familiar. Ironwood Ridge (12-1) scored off only three of those six turnovers the first time around, and because Centennial was still in position to win late in the game, Johnson knows his squad will need to take advantage of what are likely to be fewer opportunities.
Especially since Centennial’s center, who had a clunky cast on his right hand and was forced to shotgun snap with his left the first time around, is now back to full strength.
“We’ve just got to play pretty close to perfect,” Johnson said. “That’s what it comes down to. Lots of times you see talent, lots of times you see good coaching. When you’re playing a team like Centennial, which has both, that makes it a pretty rough game.”