On Saturday, Madison will make its fourth consecutive 11A championship game appearance. As one would expect, there are certain advantages that come with such a streak. However, for the defending state champs, that leverage comes in some rather unexpected areas.
“It helps us from a logistics standpoint. I would say that’s the biggest advantage of being there before,” coach Max Hodgen explained. “It sure helps knowing what to expect and travel and just our routine. We’re familiar with that, how hot it gets in there and trying to rest players from that standpoint.”
On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is Tea.
Responsible for the program’s first-ever championship game appearance, the 2016 Titans arrive in Vermillion 11-0 on the year. Their run through the regular season included a Week 8 victory over Madison (more on this momentarily), while their trek through the playoffs has featured wins over West Central and Dell Rapids.
For them, the focus is more on how their players will handle the pressure and what, if any, adjustments will be made to the game-week routine.
“You try to treat it like a regular game, just another game that you’re playing,” coach Craig Clayberg said. “It’s difficult (mentally), but you try to do the same things you’ve been doing every week, because it’s worked. You try not to blow everything out of proportion.”
With respect to the matchup itself, the two sides having played a month ago makes scouting the opponent much easier. Both coaches focused on the other’s previous three games, looking for variations in their approach.
In terms of specifics from that Week 8 matchup, which saw Tea rip off 28 unanswered points en route to a 28-25 win, there were few specifics either coach looked to.
“We have to make some adjustments in putting pressure on the quarterback and being able to tackle in space,” Hodgen said. “They’ve shown their hand and we’ve shown ours. We kind of know what to expect from them and vice versa.”
For Tea, one of the keys to victory was its ability to control the clock. The Titans held the ball nearly twice as long as Madison, thanks in part to a seven-minute, 18-play touchdown drive in the third quarter.
If it is to keep Madison’s offense off the field, Tea will need a big game from quarterback Payton Conrad. The dual-threat signal caller has thrown for 1,854 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for 1,055 yards and 10 touchdowns. He brings a great understanding of the offense and his versatility helps to keep opposing defenses on their heels.
“Payton is kind of our spark plug,” Clayberg said. “He makes a lot of calls at the line of scrimmage, does a lot of things. He can run it and he can throw it. He’s a pretty special player.”
On the other side, Madison’s high-flying offense is built around its depth at receiver, which allows it to spread the field and gash opposing defenses through the air. Leading that receiving corps is Mason Leighton. The 6-foot, 167-pound wideout has caught 41 passes for 773 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
“Mason is shifty and he’s got great hands,” Hodgen explained. “In space, he’s tough to contend with. He breaks tackles and he’s hard to get down to the ground.”
When teams try to key in on the Bulldogs’ aerial attack, they take to the ground, utilizing Riley Janke (150 carries, 659 yards, 9 touchdowns) to chew up yards and put up points.
“We’ve got an explosive offense,” Hodgen said. “We want to stretch them horizontally and vertically to open things up for Riley.”
If Week 8 was any indication, Saturday’s rematch should be a thriller. Both teams bring similarly balanced offenses and possess an ability to put up points in a hurry.
“We’re just about out of time,” Hodgen said Thursday. “We’re ready to go and they are too.”
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen .