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Gridiron Preview – Regular Season Finale

In the blink of an eye, we have reached the final week of the IHSA football regular season. It’s been a season of highs and lows for the Carmi-White County Bulldogs, with definitely a lot of highs. 

Despite the injuries to Caleb Seibers and Eli Bryant, the Bulldogs have found a way to win seven games, clinch a playoff berth and give themselves a chance to win a share of the conference title entering the final week of the regular season. Granted, the Bulldogs would need to win and hope that Flora (3-5) can defeat Sesser-Valier (8-0) in order to win a share of the BDC, but anything can happen. 

The final regular season opponent standing in front of the Bulldogs are the Johnston City Indians. Johnston City was handed their first loss of the season last week when they fell to Sesser-Valier 30-28 in overtime. That loss ended a 31-game Black Diamond Conference winning streak for the Indians; they hadn’t lost a conference game since October 18, 2019. That 31-game conference winning streak included three wins over Carmi-White County, but no loss hurt more than JC’s 37-28 win in 2022. A sense of revenge is certainly in the air, but it is also certain that the Bulldogs will need to play better in order to come away with the win.

Last week, the Bulldogs escaped Eldorado with a 14-8 victory over the one-win Eagles. Sure, on paper a win like that doesn’t look great, but even the Georgia Bulldogs win an ugly game every once in a while. The bottom line is the Bulldogs won the game, and the defense made stops and the offense picked up 1st downs late in the game when it mattered. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement before Friday’s showdown.

With the aforementioned injury to junior offensive and defensive lineman Eli Bryant, the Bulldogs felt the void up front, and reasonably so. It’s hard to replace a 6-foot-1, 310 pound presence on the offensive and defensive line, but even without Bryant, Carmi managed to rush for 250 yards in last week’s win. The battle with Johnston City will be a battle of the line of scrimmage. Year-in-year-out, the Indians offensive line is one of the largest in southern Illinois, and that is no different this year. Aside from their large linemen, the type of offense that the Indians run is also difficult to fight. JC runs the “foot-to-foot” offense that the Fairfield Mules ran for years. It’s nothing flashy. 4 yards here, 3 yards here, 6 yards here, and next thing you know they’re in the endzone. Last week, the Indians compiled a 21-play, 96-yard touchdown drive near the end of the 1st half. The Indians will also spread the wealth on offense, with six different running backs with 200+ rushing yards on the season. Junior Evan Sanders leads the team in carries and touchdowns, he’s carried it 51 times for 443 yards and 9 touchdowns. Senior Ben Morgan leads JC in yards with 524 on 41 carries with 7 touchdowns. Cannon Ashmore has 471 rushing yards on 43 attempts with 2 touchdowns. We’ll see some quarterbacks sneaks from senior Keaton Fort as well, he 213 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns this year.

As important as this game will be up front, middle linebackers Nelson Rider and Noah Pollard will be vital in stopping the Indians rushing attack. The ability to attack downfield and keep the Indian running backs from busting long runs will be the difference maker, as it was in last season’s matchup. JC busted two 50+ yard touchdowns at the end of the 2nd quarter in last year’s week 8 matchup, which ended up making the difference. 

“We have to be physical defensively,” said CWC head coach Kurt Simon. “We cannot give up the big plays like we did last year.”

One would imagine that Todd Thomas is telling his team the same thing, as Carmi has been able to bust their own big plays en route to their 7-1 record. Last week alone, Noah Pollard had touchdown runs of 82 and 51 yards. You can’t expect the big plays to be there every time, but there is no question that Carmi will have to take advantage of them when they are. 

The biggest key for the Bulldog offense will be to avoid 3rd and long situations. Although we’ve seen the passing game take a small step in the right direction, the Bulldogs are at their best when they’re playing “ahead of the chains.” The ability to pick up 6, 7 or 8 yards on first and second down will help tremendously. 

I don’t see this game being a 14-8 low scoring affair. With how these two teams have run the ball this season, I expect a high-scoring shootout. Calpreps.com agrees, they are predicting a 34-27 Indian win. I don’t agree with their chosen winner, of course.

As far as what is at stake for these two teams in terms of playoffs, this game is huge for both sides. The winner of this game could potentially be seeded in the top-5 in the southern 2A bracket, meaning they will more than likely host a 6-3 or 5-4 team at home in the 1st round. But a loss could put them anywhere from the 7 seed to the 11 seed, meaning they could potentially have to travel 2+ hours to face a 7 or 8 win team in the opening round. As we saw last year, a week 9 loss to Flora hurt the Bulldogs in that matter. That loss dropped the Bulldogs to the 8-seed, placing them in a matchup with Athens and we all know how that ended. 

Friday’s game will also be Senior Night for the Bulldogs. Prior to the game, Carmi will honor their eight seniors; Andrew Dodgson, Landon Driscoll, Caleb Seibers, Trayton Vickers, Gavin Peyton, Nelson Rider, Konner Buchanan, and Austin Owen.

Fans who can’t attend will be able to watch and listen to the game on 97.3 FM WRUL and the WRUL Sports YouTube Channel. 

The IHSA will announce the 2023 playoff field on Saturday night as part of their Playoff Pairings Show. Stay tuned to the WRUL Facebook page to find out who, where and when the Bulldogs will play next weekend.

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