Friday, November 29, 2013

6A state title preview: Derby (11-1) vs. SM East (11-1)

Yager Stadium, on the campus of Washburn University in Topeka, is the site of
Saturday's 6A state championship tussle between Derby and SM East. 

Derby (11-1) vs. SM East (11-1)
Where: Yager Stadium, Washburn University
When: 1 p.m., Saturday
Radio: Sports Radio 810 WHB
TV: KC Metro Sports 2, channel 311
Online stream: NFHS Network
Topeka CJ Spread: Derby -11.5

It seems like Derby has been discussed ad nauseam across the Kansas 6A football scene the past three years. They had a rough 0-2 start to the 2011 season, then rattled off eight wins in nine games (and in the process became a sexy pick to upset Wichita Heights in Sub-State), before getting stomped out, 34-14 in the Sub-State venture against Heights.

Last fall they made it to Sub-State with an 10-1 record, and were basically the favorite to take down Hutchinson in the round and win a state title a week later. Well, the home field advantage didn't mean much, and a late two-point conversion from Hutchinson sent the Panthers packing, once again.

Derby finally broke through the Sub-State round this year with a convincing 38-point victory against Garden City on Friday. With a combined 29 wins under their belts at the varsity level, this year's group of Derby seniors knows how to win. The real question is, do they know how to win a championship? We'll find out if their stellar senior class can cement its legacy as one of the best in Derby history on Saturday. And given the way they've been playing the past 11 games, it's going to take a colossal effort to slow down the Panther machine.

SM East
On the surface the Lancers represent the quintessential underdog. A school known for it's country club sports breaks through to their first ever state title appearance in football under a young, new head coach. But, painting the SM East football team with that paintbrush would be doing the Lancers a major disservice.

First off, any program that manages to go 11-1 against Sunflower League competition is special. Since 2000, the Lancers are just the 12th Sunflower League team out of 164 units during that time period to win 11 or more games in a single season, and seven of those teams went on to win state titles.

Secondly, head coach Dustin Delaney may be young according to his birth certificate, but he's not a newbie when it comes to state titles. He was Hutchinson's offensive coordinator from 2006 through 2009 -- which was perhaps the most dominant four-season stretch of any big class football program in Kansas high school football history. Delaney took home four rings with the Salthawks during that period, before taking the job at Emporia High School. He knows a thing or two about winning state titles.

Finally, the Lancers can embrace the underdog role. Derby will take the field as the favorite on Saturday, the way many of SM East's opponents have throughout the fall. The Lancers have proven time and again they can play with anybody. There's no guarantees Derby believes that. The pressure's on Derby, the favorite, while the magic has been with the Lancers.

What to expect
The computers like Derby. Comfortably. As does most of the state. Getting off the bus the Panthers look much like the Hutchinson teams that have dominated for years. They're enormous, and you're not going to find a starting offensive lineman under 220 pounds. But this isn't limited to the lineman, as Derby's top skill position players DeAndre Goolsby and Tyler West go 6-5, 230 and 6-1, 210, respectively. They also have tremendous speed at all positions, and a senior quarterback in Jeremy Dunham who plays like a 10th-year starter,  which helps to explain why they've had so much success in the spread offense.

By those standards, SM East is small and slow. But, in the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend. The Lancers appeared undermanned athletically against Olathe North, the Sunflower League's most athletic team, yet they had no problem moving the football and playing great team defense. They haven't faced a team with the size advantage Derby holds, so expect the Panthers to try and exploit that difference, at least early on.

Another key point that should never be overlooked, but always is, are the weather conditions. Tomorrow the forecast in Topeka calls for 52 degree weather, with sunshine and winds in the 5-10 mph range. That's about the norm for state title Saturdays, and yet time and again we've seen passing efficiencies plummet, and all-state kickers play like they were randomly selected out of the stands in the pregame. Players just aren't used to performing in the wind during the daylight hours.

Last year, SM West nearly cost themselves a title after missing two fields goals, an extra point, and botching a punt. Their passing game was also poor. And you could go back to 2005 when Olathe East stubbornly tried to force the passing game (albeit against a stronger wind) and entered halftime distraught on the heels of throwing four interceptions. They went on to lose. And I've seen everything in between. Blue Valley is one of the few program's who've been able to throw the ball and win state titles, and even then their state title record is shotty compared to their regular season success.

Teams who run the ball perform the best in these games, and this has proven itself year after year. SM East's style is suited well for this type of weather. Derby likes having the option to throw the ball around the field, but if their running game is working well they won't need to. Let's just this put it this way -- the more SM East can get Derby to rely on their passing game, the better things could play out for the Lancers. This won't guarantee success, and Derby is certainly capable of throwing the ball well, but history has shown us that running the flexbone in title games works better than running the spread. That could mean absolutely nothing, or it could be a huge advantage for SM East. We'll know around 4:00 p.m. tomorrow.