Stern challenge ahead for FDSH at SE Polk

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Brycen Bell of Fort Dodge goes after an interception last Friday at Dodger Stadium.

PLEASANT HILL — The matchup seems relatively innocuous at first glance: Fort Dodge heads to Southeast Polk on Friday for a Class 4A, District 2 opener against the 1-3 Rams.

Dodger head coach Matt Miller knows, based most notably on recent experience, there will be nothing easy about this road trip.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

Fort Dodge finished the non-district portion of its schedule with a 3-1 mark after last week’s 35-7 victory over Carroll. The Dodgers own victories over Mason City, Ames and the Tigers, with their lone loss coming at unbeaten Indianola (4-0).

Southeast Polk, meanwhile, has played arguably the toughest schedule in the state to date. The Rams came up short in close contests against No. 1 West Des Moines Valley, ninth-rated Waukee and sixth-ranked Iowa City West before last Friday’s win over Des Moines East.

“This is a tremendous challenge and a great opportunity for us,” Miller said. “I think for quite a few years now, this has been the team Southeast Polk projected to take them to the next level. They have quite a few three-year linemen up front and, to me, hands-down the best (running) back in the state.

“I know they don’t want to be sitting here at 1-3, which only heightens their sense of urgency the rest of the way. They were in the hunt against some of the better (opponents in 4A). This is a dangerous ballclub. We’ll have to be at our best.”

Junior tailback Gavin Williams, now a three-year starter, has rushed for 393 yards at over five yards per carry. The 195-pound three-star prospect already has offers from Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan and Nebraska on the table, among dozens of other high-end programs.

“He’s a downhill runner who can get it done between the tackles, but he’s also a state-level sprinter,” Miller said. “And he has plenty of help from the four seniors on the line who have been around for a long time. They’re big and tough (in the trenches).”

Fort Dodge knows Williams and the Rams well. The Dodgers have faced him in each of his first two varsity seasons as part of a recent matchup trend in a series that has otherwise been rare.

Between 1996 and 2013, FDSH squared off with Southeast Polk only four times. This contest marks the fifth consecutive season the schools have met on the gridiron, though, and the fourth trip to Pleasant Hill for the Dodgers during that stretch.

“It’s no secret what they want to do, and we have to be able to slow down their (rushing attack),” Miller said. “We won’t be able to stop it, but our defense has to get enough in its way to create some 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations.

“We have to make them earn it. We need to get good hits on (the ball carrier) and wrap up.”

Fort Dodge’s defense, which surrendered over 2,200 yards rushing at 6.6 yards per carry in 2017, has been markedly better so far this season. Opponents have accumulated only 318 net yards t 2.5 per attempt through the first three games.

The Dodgers have out-gained their opponents from the line of scrimmage at almost a 2-to-1 yardage ratio. Senior quarterback Drake Miller still leads the entire state in completions (90) and is second in yards (1,391), and junior receiver Tysen Kershaw is No. 2 for receptions (37) and first in yards (627).

Meanwhile, sophomore tailback Dayson Clayton — who had a career-best 211-yard performance a week ago — has 465 yards and six touchdowns at 5.5 yards per carry.

“We have to finish drives and put points on the board when the opportunity presents itself,” Miller said. “I’ve been very proud of our defense so far, but we need to keep them off the field as much as possible. And obviously, winning the turnover battle and executing on special teams are huge when you’re on the road.”

Junior Brycen Bell has 12 catches for 322 yards and five scores, while leading the defense with a pair of interceptions for FDSH. Junior Bryson Opande leads the squad in sacks with three.

Junior linebacker Levi Egli (25.5 tackles, including five for loss) and senior safety Byer Nelson (24.5 tackles) have are at the top of the defensive charts statistically.

Senior quarterback Josiah Cole, a first-year starter, has thrown for 436 yards and rushed for 344 more at nearly 10 yards per carry for the Rams. Cole has scored five times on the ground.

Dylan Travis (16 receptions, 160 yards) and Jackson Schneider (12 for 137) have been SEP’s leading receivers.