Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Stratford and Morrison have been almost mirror images of each other.
Each team started the postseason with an easy victory, they both had to come from behind in the fourth quarter for a win on the road, and each of them has beaten a highly-ranked team. But the mirror will crack for either the Bulldogs or the Wildcats Friday night when they square off at Moore High School for the right to advance to next week’s Class A championship game.
“(The Wildcats) are going to be tough, but it’s the semifinals and everybody is tough,” said Stratford coach Michael Blackburn, whose club beat Crescent, 27-17, last week to became the only team in Oklahoma with three playoff road victories this fall. “We’re going to prepare, and we feel like we have a good chance if we play well.”
As alike as they have been over the last three weeks, Stratford (11-2) and Morrison (10-3 and ranked No. 10 in the final Class A poll) also have their differences. While the Bulldogs have won three games in one postseason for the first time in school history, the Wildcats are looking for their school’s 13th state title since 1984 and their second Class A crown in three seasons.
Also, while Stratford used a dominant fourth-quarter performance to beat Crescent in the quarterfinals, Morrison squandered most of a 28-0 halftime lead and held on to eliminate No. 2 Cashion, 35-28, Friday night.
“I don’t know if we’ve played a team we can compare them to,” Blackburn said when asked to size up his semifinal opponent. “They don’t have a player like (Darian) Bennett from Crescent (who rushed for 224 yards last week and for over 800 yards in three playoff games), but they’re just solid across the board.
“Their quarterback (junior Spencer Venus) is a good player, and they’re patient runners,” he added. “They do a good job with the quarterback counter. We felt like Crescent had a couple of other good backs besides Bennett, but Morrison is probably a little more balanced as far as throwing the ball. They’re a little more diverse than Crescent was.”
Like Stratford senior quarterback Chase Chamberlain (who has thrown for career highs of 184 and 194 yards the past two weeks), Venus has hit some key passes to fuel his team’s playoff run. His scoring toss to Trenton Inselman just seven seconds before intermission gave the Wildcats their 28-point halftime lead last week and proved critical when Cashion mounted its second-half comeback.
“They’re in a winged-T most of the time, which you think of as a running formation, but they’ve thrown about 15 times a game in the playoffs,” Blackburn said of the Tigers. “Their tailback (Dylan Quinata) is a back they either give (the ball) to or run behind a lot. The other guys who touches the ball a lot is Jacob Walls. He has good speed, and they move him around a lot, plus they’re big up front.”
Stratford’s defense got pushed around in the first half against Crescent, surrendering 235 rushing yards (including 176 by Bennett) and 253 total yards before the break. But the Bulldogs allowed the Tigers only 72 yards over the final two quarters and limited Bennett to four yards on his final seven carries of the game.
“These guys just don’t want to quit playing,” said Blackburn. “They see the goal ahead of them and they want to accomplish what they’ve set out to do. We’ve played two tough games in a row (Stratford beat fifth-ranked Afton, 21-14, in the second round of the playoffs), and I think it’s been good for us.
“We didn’t change much scheme-wise (in the second half last week),” he said. “It mainly just came down to we got more physical in the second half and we tackled better. We seemed to get more people to the ball and got (Bennett) surrounded a little bit.”
Blackburn said the Bulldogs — who have surrendered just 31 points (and only 10 in the second half) in three playoff games — will probably have to go toe-to-toe with the Wildcats on both sides of the ball.
“They’re going to be physical, but we can be physical,” he noted. “As long as we read our keys and don’t get beat on a big play through the passing game, we feel like we’ll be okay. We have to block and tackle well — that’s what it’s going to amount to.
“(The Wildcats) are really solid defensively,” Blackburn added. “Quinata is a really good linebacker, and Walls play safety and he’s good in run support. They run to the ball well, and their secondary intercepted (Jeremy) Seaton (the Cashion quarterback) six times last week.”
All of that figures to add up to another busy week for Chamberlain and his offense. Over the last two games, the Stratford signal-caller has accounted for more than 500 yards in total offense, and he has consistently hit big passes while his running game has struggled for the most part.
Against Crescent, Chamberlain connected with senior wideout Tommy Lawson twice in the first half — on a 27-yarder that led to the game’s first touchdown (on Chamberlain’s two-yard quarterback sneak in the first quarter) and a 90-yard catch-and-run (on third-and-20) that gave Stratford a 13-7 second-quarter lead. Lawson finished with three catches for 145 yards and also intercepted two passes from his spot in the secondary.
“Chase has started four years and he’s been through a lot and he’s overcome a lot,” Blackburn said. “I’m happy for him and for all of them. He’s stepped up and made big plays at big times, but the blocks have been there and the receivers have made some nice plays.
“Tommy (who is playing varsity football this fall for the first time) has that big-play capability,” he added. “He’s just a wiry, athletic kid. This time of year people have to step up and make plays, and he has, both offensively and defensively.”
After gaining just 23 yards on nine first-half running plays last week, Stratford — led by Chamberlain and senior tailback Regand Ardery (who had 60 yards on nine carries in the second half) controlled the ball on the ground in the fourth quarter. Blackburn said he expects that momentum to carry over to Friday’s contest.
“We feel like we can pass or run — I think we’ve shown that,” he said. “We always want to be able to run the ball, though. We didn’t do that early the other night, but we did late.”
Blackburn said the support of the Stratford fans has made his team’s busy travel schedule (the Bulldogs will play their fifth straight road game Friday going back to Week 10 of the regular season) a lot easier to handle.
“It almost felt like a home game the other night because of all the people we had (at Crescent) and all the noise they made,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll have a good crowd again Friday, but I’m sure (Morrison) will, too.”
Although the Bulldogs will be an underdog for a third straight week and will be going for a first-ever berth in a championship game against a program with a rich playoff history, Blackburn said the past is, well, the past.
“That tradition thing can be overplayed and underplayed at the same time,” he explained. “(The Wildcats) deserve respect for what they’ve done, but when it comes down to playing, it comes down to what we do do on the field Friday night.”