MURRAY — Which team will play defense?
That’s the burning question when two high-octane offenses get together at 9:06 a.m. Thursday in the Cedar Falls UNI-Dome.
In the first of two Eight-Man semifinal matchups, Murray (12-0) takes on Gilbertville Don Bosco (11-0). Both have been scoring at a furious pace in recent outings.
Third-ranked Don Bosco has made a quick transition to the Eight-Man game, after losing in overtime in the second round of 11-man Class A last season. In just its ninth season of football at the school, the Dons have beaten West Central of Maynard 58-26 in the first round, rallied from a 20-0 deficit to beat Springville 48-42 in the second around and walloped Clarksville 42-6 Friday in the quarterfinals.
No. 2 Murray has reached the 60-point mark throughout the postseason, routing Twin Cedars 62-19 and Colo-Nesco 64-40 before beating Adair-Casey for the second time this season, 60-43, Friday at Mustang Field.
Last year, Murray fell behind 14-0 in the semifinal game against Clarksville before rallying to win 58-35. No. 1 Fremont-Mills then steamrolled the Mustangs in the title game, 81-0.
“Murray has some really good skill position kids with a very potent offense,” Don Bosco coach Colby Yoder said. “They’re probably averaging 60 points a game, so they’re doing something right. Whoever plays defense this week will set the tone of the game. Whoever wins in the trenches and gets it done up front will win this football game.”
“Size-wise, we’ve probably seen bigger teams at times, but they have good speed everywhere and they show you about every formation you’ve seen all year,” Murray coach Keith Shields said. “Their defense pretty much stays in a 4-4 and they flow to the ball well.”
Both teams have been getting exceptional play from their quarterbacks.
Murray senior Austin Halls rushed for 381 yards and five touchdowns against Adair-Casey Friday, while also passing for a TD to senior Cody Scroggie. Against Colo-Nesco, Halls was 13-of-23 passing for 193 yards and four TDs to Scroggie, while also running for 193 yards.
Seth Nerness, taking over for Andrew Rider in the backfield after Rider suffered a broken arm Oct. 19 vs. Lamoni, ran for 153 yards and two TDs against Colo-Nesco and also broke the 100-yard mark against A-C.
Don Bosco dual threat quarterback Jake Hogan has passed for 1,435 yards at a 71.7 percent completion rate, and also rushed for 1,693 yards as the team leader on the ground as well, with 25 rushing touchdowns. (Halls compares with 1,590 yards passing and 1,023 rushing.)
A junior who placed third in the state wrestling tournament last winter at 152 pounds, Hogan is a tough, swift threat to hurt you with his arm or his legs. Hogan passed for three touchdowns against Clarksville, including one to Dylon Rhoads, who was fifth in the state wrestling tournament.
After having a hand in seven touchdowns in the team’s second-round win over Springville, Hogan had a hand in all six of the Dons’ touchdowns Friday, beginning with a 61-yard run that put the Dons up early, 6-0. He also returned a kickoff 73 yards for a touchdown as Don Bosco raced to a 28-6 halftime lead.
Hogan finished the game with 141 yards on the ground and two scores, and 8-11 passing for 122 yards and three touchdown passes. Top receivers are Tyler Backes, Tyler Metcalf and Rhoads.
“Jake is pretty versatile and allows us to be pretty balanced,” Yoder said.
Shields agrees, after watching video of the Dons in action.
“Everything they do seems to go through the quarterback,” Shields said. “Hogan may be a little bigger, but Halls and Hogan seem to be pretty comparable. If Hogan gets the corner, he’s tough to catch. He’s also real accurate throwing the ball, with only two interceptions.”
Defensively, Backes leads the Dons from his linebacker position.
Halls knows the challenge is tough when a team gets to the UNI-Dome, but it helps that so many Mustangs have experienced it.
“At the dome you have to execute,” Halls said. “We feel this is a championship-caliber team. Fremont was a talented team last year, and it was almost like everyone else was playing for second. This year, honestly, we feel like we have a really good shot. We have to execute, because Don Bosco is no easy task. Clarksville was not easy for us last year, and Don Bosco beat them.”
Shields’ projected lineup for Thursday lists Scroggie and lineman George Barber as starters, but both have been battling ankle injuries. RayDean Burdess, starting defensive lineman, could fill Barber’s role on offense again if needed.
Tight end and defensive end Sam Rockhold is excited for this game. He missed the playoffs last year after suffering a broken leg in week seven.
Someone caught in that situation this year is Rider, who might be cleared to be allowed to play with a shorter, padded cast.
“We won’t know until sometime Wednesday, and then we don’t know how effective he would be with a cast on,” Shields said.
Matthew Barnes would see some time at running back and wide receiver, as well, and Matthew Johnston has appeared at tight end. Rockhold has been punting since Scroggie’s ankle injury.
On defense, if Barber isn’t ready, Rockhold could move to defensive tackle and Scott Funke can play defensive end. Devin Shields has stepped in at linebacker alongside Eddie Otto with Rider’s absence. Barnes spells Scroggie on defense when the ankle flares up.
Otto and Rockhold spearhead the Murray defense, topping the team in solo tackles, assisted tackles and tackles for loss.
Halls has a team-high six interceptions, bringing his career total to 20. Murray has forced 28 turnovers and Don Bosco has 23 takeaways.
Pick your statistic, and these two teams are closely aligned.
“They seem to be pretty evenly matched teams,” Yoder said. “There should be a lot of action.”
Seventh-rated Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn (12-0) knocked off top-ranked Newell-Fonda last week and meets No. 4 Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton (12-0) in the second semifinal at 12:06 p.m. The winners tangle at 10 a.m. Nov. 15.