Jefferson City head coach Ted LePage is a firm believer defense starts with the ability to stop the run.
The Jays (1-0, No. 9 in Class 6) are likely to find out if that is true this week when they open the home schedule against Belleville East (Ill.) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Adkins Stadium.
The Lancers are coming off a 35-0 win against Chicago-Hubbard in last Friday's season opener. They ran for more than 400 yards and had three different players with at least 100 yards rushing.
That certainly has the attention of Jefferson City's front four.
"Their backs, all three guys look almost identical, you're just replacing moveable parts," LePage said. "They're not big bruising backs. They don't have to be, all they have to do is get a crease and get into the second level and once they're beside you they are gone."
DeMarius Ward, quarterback Arkim Lewis and Lawrence Butler Jr. all had more than 100 yards apiece as the Lancers piled up 410 yards on the ground. Another running back, Damone Witherspoon, added 50 yards.
The Lancers showed off their big-play capability last week, which included touchdown runs of 45 and 85 yards. LePage said the key will be for the defense to avoid those big plays.
"They had trouble consistently running the ball as a team last week," LePage said. "It seemed like they would go five, six, seven plays and kind of self-destruct. That's one thing we were talking about this week at practice, maintain good ball leverage.
"Whether everybody corrects their mistakes from week to week (remains to be see) ... but that looked like an issue for them. A big play is something we don't want to give up."
The Jays will face a bigger offensive line this week. Nathan Sylvester (6-foot-2, 296 pounds) and Jeff Brown (6-2, 323) are the leaders up front for the Lancers.
"Big thing is we've got to focus on their offensive line," LePage said. "Their offensive line is enormous and they're very explosive. They come off the line extremely hard, low, push guys out of the way."
Belleville East's running threat could be a test for Jefferson City's young defensive line, which held up for the most part in the team's 24-7 victory against McCluer North in Saturday's season opener.
The Stars had just 20 rushing yards and averaged less than one yard per carry. Part of that was due to the Stars' bad snaps on punts, which cost the team more than 40 yards. But Jefferson City clogged up the middle, forcing the Stars to the outside.
"As long as we can make them run sideline to sideline we are winning that game," LePage said. "I felt like the first game for the inexperienced was really pleasant."
With four new starters on the offensive line and several new players on the defensive line, the Jays came through fine last week. Jefferson City allowed just one sack and kept pressure on the Stars, including sacks by Hayden Strobel and Austin Gerloff.
In his first start at quarterback, Gabe Marcantonio held his own as well throwing for one touchdown and running for another.
"We came out and effectively moved the ball down the field in our first two series and I think that was a huge boost for our players," LePage said. "I think last week was a confidence boost, but you have to take that and move forward."
Friday's game against Belleville East figures to be a lot different than last year's meeting when Jefferson City rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to win 17-10. The Jays scored the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes. That game was played in a driving rain that forced a 45-minute delay in the second quarter.
"We think there are some things we can take advantage of, we just weren't able to last year because of (the downpour). We were very limited in what we could do," LePage said.
With no downpour in sight, Friday's game could very well be decided up front.
"It's going to be a unique challenge," LePage said.
Notes: The two schools will play a JV game beginning at 5 p.m. ... Belleville East finished last season with a 4-5 record.