Showdown of unbeatens
Crater has positioned itself perfectly through three weeks of the Southwest Conference football season, the only question now is if the Comets can take another big step Friday night in Eugene.
A week after dismantling supposed top challenger South Medford, the No. 1-ranked Irish can go a long way toward locking up another SWC crown with a win over the only other unbeaten conference squad.
Past years may have allowed the Comets a chance to surprise Sheldon, but not after what they've accomplished thus far.
"We're 3-0 and they're 3-0 (in the SWC) so it's not like we're going to sneak in there or anything like that, obviously," said Crater head coach John Beck. "I've never seen them not play hard and I don't think they know how to do that so we'll get their best shot, that's for sure."
Given how hard the Comets have been playing thus far, Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson expects nothing but Crater's best on Friday as well.
"They're on a little bit of a roll and I'm glad we're playing them at home, that's for sure," said Johnson, whose team is 5-0 overall.
Crater has won three straight after going 0-2 in nonconference play, notching convincing wins over Roseburg and North Medford with a hard-fought overtime victory at Grants Pass in between.
Along the way, the Comets have developed a steady running game behind the efforts of Ty Wolf (49 carries for 288 yards) and Carlos Higuera (36 for 172), as well as received more consistent play from quarterback Chase Mackey. The senior signal-caller completed 9 of 12 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns last week against North Medford.
"They have a bunch of experience and anytime you return your quarterback that's a big plus," said Johnson. "(Mackey's) a big kid that can throw the ball and he can run, too, so you have to be ready for anything."
Mackey was without one of his top targets last week in RJ Morgan, who sat out the North game to recoup an injury. The senior is slated to return for Sheldon and is complemented by the steady play of receivers Dakota Massey and Kory Bennett, who is coming off his best game of the season.
The Comets are averaging 334 yards and 26 points per game and Beck said the biggest improvement recently has been in the play by his offensive line and the team's ability to execute the game plan.
All that gives Beck and company hope of a potential upset Friday.
"If we can execute the game plan and play extremely hard, we have a good chance," said the coach, "but it's going to take a lot of focus and a lot of effort on our players' part."
"I like our physicality," added Beck. "If it was a slugfest or street brawl then I'd pick our guys but it's not a street brawl it's a football game and they've got good kids all over the place."
Sheldon enters the game with the SWC's leading offense at 399 yards and 46 points per game, with quarterback Taylor Alie able to dial up dynamic options on the perimeter in Connor Strahm, Dylan Lewis and Ivan Faulhaber.
The Irish got a boost in their running game with the return of senior Mitch Lewis last week and that should open up more time at receiver for Strahm, who is a matchup nightmare.
To combat Sheldon's impressive group of skill players, Crater's best hope will be in putting together sustained drives, at the very least to develop field position.
"We have to make the most of every possession," said Beck. "We can't be three-and-out all the time. We've got to contain their big-play ability if we can on the defensive side and if we can eliminate the explosion plays on special teams, we have a chance."
THURSTON AT NORTH MEDFORD — North Medford has shown it can play 24 solid minutes but not a full 48 since the SWC slate began and Friday's game at Spiegelberg Stadium should put the Tornado (1-4, 0-3) to the test again with Thurston's (2-3, 2-1) non-stop approach.
The Colts' high-octane offense, spearheaded by quarterback Cory Weick, is averaging 362 yards and 21 points per game and is built on not letting the defense catch their breath. Running backs Roy Jackson and Aaron Downes provided a solid one-two punch, while Jack Miller and Kameron Lightheart each average over 13 yards per reception.
Turnovers have been the Achilles' heel for North Medford since its season-opening win and the Tornado will need to shore that up if it expects to break through in the SWC. North is averaging at least three turnovers per game since beating McNary.
Sophomore quarterback Troy Fowler has had his expected highs and lows as a first-year starter but would be much better served if he could have a little more time to operate.
"The frustrating part of it is we've got skill guys we think can play but we haven't really given Troy the time and consistency he needs to operate as quarterback," said Tornado head coach Mike Mitchell. "I feel like our line is getting better but we have to give him a lot more time than he's been getting to help get the ball out."
The Tornado's running game has been setting a nice tone between tailback Evan Hisey (75 carries for 431 yards) and fullback Nick Janakes (25 for 153).
SOUTH MEDFORD AT ROSEBURG — South Medford took a big shot on the chin last week in a 52-17 drubbing by Sheldon and will look to get back up in the SWC race with a road win against a Roseburg team that may have found its rhythm with a 45-6 rout of South Eugene.
The Panthers (3-2, 1-2) have given teams little reason to respect their passing game and that has made things tougher for running backs Ben Casebier, Nick Phillips and Christian Bowley. No one in the SWC has passed for as few yards as South (576). Quarterbacks Joe McLaughlin and Craig Contreras have shared duties in recent weeks and one or both needs to step it up if South is going to entertain thoughts of a postseason run.
Roseburg's (2-3, 1-2) veer-based scheme is handled well by returning quarterback Hayden Lent, who has run for 178 yards and passed for 619 more. Tailback Jake Heverly is a playmaking threat in the backfield and Brendon Hopkins has been Lent's main target on the perimeter.
The Panthers took a hit with injuries to starting offensive lineman Alex Hathaway and cornerback/receiver Grady Smith but still boast the SWC's top defense at 180 yards and 16 points allowed.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry