Fort Dodge heads to UNI-Dome

CEDAR FALLS — Physically speaking, the Fort Dodge football squad could possibly benefit from more time and preparation before diving into the deep end against perennial stalwart Cedar Falls.

Head coach Matt Miller never feels completely ready at the beginning of the regular season. His players are itching for game action, though, and they’ll get their wish here on Friday inside the UNI-Dome.

Varsity kickoff is set for 7:15 p.m.

The Dodgers will be playing on the University of Northern Iowa’s home turf for the first time since 1991, as they take on the Tigers for the second consecutive season after a 25-year hiatus. In the 2016 opener, Cedar Falls pulled away late to defeat FDSH inside Dodger Stadium, 20-6.

Both squads return an abundance of talent, with 13 starters back in Miller’s stable and 15 veteran Tigers ready to make an impact again. Fort Dodge was 4-5 a year ago; Cedar Falls went 6-3.

”The kids are excited to get going. It’s just time,” said Miller, who is beginning his 14th season at the helm. ”I don’t know if we’re where we need to be for a road game against what I consider to be a legitimate Top-10 (Class 4A) ballclub, but we’ll find out. We need to see where we stand and what we have to work on, and nothing will test us quite like this.”

Quarterback Drake Miller returns to the FDSH lineup after setting sophomore school records for passing yards (1,777), completions (172), attempts (276) and touchdowns (14). Two of his favorite targets, seniors Trey Mosley and Tyrnan Lara, are also back, as well as senior tailbacks Joe Artis and Savion Poe.

Mosley, a regular since his sophomore campaign, is already the program’s all-time leader for receptions (88), and he’s eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for his career.

Offensive linemen Aaron Porter, Logan Finowski and Triston Licht are incumbents as well. Sophomore split end Tysen Kershaw and either junior Jace Peterson or junior Drew Callon will be making their first starts, as will tackle Dalton Schmidt and guard Chase Tepfer.

”I know what we can do in the open field,” Miller said. ”We have a lot of weapons and big-play ability. Will we be able to get tough north-south yards on the ground? If so, that will make us very versatile offensively. If not, and we become a one-dimensional team, we might struggle. Our lack of depth up front is a real concern.”

Defensively, senior linebacker Cayd Lara — an Iowa State wrestling recruit and 2017 state runner-up on the mat — and senior cornerback Damond Lockner made Fort Dodge go a year ago, and both return. Licht will be the Dodgers’ lone two-way starter as a linebacker. Senior defensive end Dakota Stenzel saw the field regularly last season, as did Artis, who will be a rush end in certain packages.

Junior move-in Carson Spiker is a newcomer at nose guard, and seniors Mitch Glass, Aidan Simonson and Luke Jacobson are getting their feet wet in the middle flanked by Lara and Licht. Brothers Brayden (cornerback) and Brycen (safety) Bell are both slated to start for the first time as well.

Junior Bryer Nelson was active both sides of the ball against CF last season, but he tore his ACL late in the game and was done for the year. He’ll be a safety.

”There’s some definite potential on defense; we can run and we’re athletic,” Miller said. ”But as important as it is to establish the run on offense, we’ll also have to stop it on defense. Cedar Falls is going to be big and physical. They’ll come right at us.”

The Tigers, who didn’t give up more than 21 points in a single contest a year ago, are anchored by highly-touted junior linebacker Jack Campbell and versatile defensive ends Colin Klatt and Ben Gerdes. Veteran quarterback Luke Gillett returns, as does backfield mate Sam Gary and offensive linemen Austin Smiley, Jackson Leistikow, Justin Campbell and Tristan Weltruski.

”Cedar Falls doesn’t do anything fancy — they’ll just get after you,” Miller said. ”They’ve got a lot of guys back from a stingy defense.

”We know their players won’t be looking up and staring at the lights (of the UNI-Dome); they’re used to it. We can’t let that experience overwhelm us. It may take a while to get adjusted to the setting and the atmosphere, but it can’t take long.”

The Dodgers and Tigers met on the gridiron as Big 8 rivals every year from 1961 through ’91. CF leads the all-time series, 18-14.

Miller’s 58 career victories and 13 completed years both rank second in program history, behind Forrest Marquis (74) and Sam Moser (15), respectively. Fort Dodge is 41-37 overall since 2009 — the school’s best eight-year stretch since 1974-81.

The UNI-Dome, which has a capacity of over 16,000, has hosted the state football championships every year since 1976.

”This is a tremendous opportunity for us to play there,” Miller said. ”It’s something our guys will always remember, and I’m hoping it’s for all the right reasons.”