This week has been less about a rival and more about critical repairs for the suddenly struggling North Callaway Thunderbirds.
For the South Callaway Bulldogs, a seven-game winning streak has created a business-like confidence.
North Callaway travels to Mokane tonight for the annual Callaway Cup rivalry game with South Callaway. Kickoff for the Eastern Missouri Conference showdown between the Thunderbirds and Bulldogs is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The Callaway clash took on added significance when it was bumped to the end of the regular season, serving as a prelude for the start of district play. Both the EMO title and seed positioning in Class 2 District 5 were expected to be at stake tonight.
Well, the conference championship is no longer in play. South Callaway's 41-21 win at Wright City last week — paired with North Callaway's 24-22 home loss to Mark Twain — clinched the EMO title for the Bulldogs.
South Callaway (7-1, 6-0 EMO) secured its first conference championship since 2016 and its third in five seasons.
"I think our players were excited about winning the conference championship, but at the same time I don't get the sense that it's going to their heads," South Callaway coach Zack Hess said. "I think they know that this is going to be a huge challenge for us this week.
"I felt like the attentiveness, and the focus, was really good (Monday) in our meetings."
North Callaway's season was steaming along at a promising pace before its second consecutive loss extinguished the prospects of a second straight EMO title. The Thunderbirds (6-2, 4-2) now find themselves scrambling to correct their course.
"We have to get us right — the game is the game, but we've got to get right," North Callaway coach Kevin O'Neal said. "We've got to get back on track. We're definitely off track right now and so we've got to fix our team.
"So whoever we play this week is whoever we play, and it happens to be South Callaway."
Both the Thunderbirds' and Bulldogs' offensive identities are rooted in their respective running games. North Callaway is averaging 234.3 yards on the ground, while South Callaway is not far off that total at 220.8.
Senior running back Jordan Delashmutt tops the Thunderbirds with 929 yards rushing (9.5 per carry) and 13 touchdowns. Senior running back Dakota Brush has gained 597 yards (6.9 average) and also scored 13 times.
"Jordan is just a physical, big, fast running back who is hard to tackle, hard to bring down," Hess said. "Then you throw Dakota into that mix and he's the same, a physical guy. Just watching the film, it seems like he takes a lot of pride in lead-blocking.
"He's fast and physical, so it's like a one-two punch with those guys."
Hess noted the Bulldogs will need multiple defenders converging on both Delashmutt and Brush.
"We've just got to get guys to the ball and hang on for dear life, if need be," Hess said. "Hopefully we can tackle and get them to the ground, because if you miss a tackle or they break a tackle, that's the difference in a 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-yard gain or a 60-yard touchdown run."
Dynamic senior quarterback Peyton Leeper sparks South Callaway's running game with 520 yards (6.3 per carry) and 12 touchdowns.
"(Leeper) is even more scary this year because he's got the ball in his hands every time now," O'Neal said. "That was an excellent move by coach Hess putting him at quarterback and as he's gotten more and more comfortable throughout the year in that offense, he's a special kid, a special player.
" He's the key that runs that whole thing there, so he's doing a great job with it right now."
Senior running back Bradyn Belcher is next with 490 yards rushing (5.6 average) and five scores for the Bulldogs. Junior running back Devin Borghardt has provided 201 yards (5.2 per carry) and three touchdowns.
"They're going to keep you honest," O'Neal said. "Leeper is the guy that drives the whole thing, obviously, but (Belcher) runs the ball hard. He's a load to bring down. Their wingbacks do a nice job — whenever they get a chance to make plays, they excel in those opportunities."
After allowing 247 yards rushing to Mark Twain last week, O'Neal stressed the North Callaway defense can't afford to be passive tonight.
"You have to attack, you can't sit back on your heels, and so you can't let them get going," he said. "You can't let these guys get into open space and get moving, because that's what they want to do.
"They're trying to find that spot to get into the open field and outrun everybody."
The Bulldogs and Thunderbirds have been able to throw the ball effectively enough to supplement their running games.
Leeper is 64-of-120 passing (53 percent) for 1,092 yards, 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Junior tight end Caleb Hall leads South Callaway with 28 catches for 397 yards (14.2 average) and two touchdowns, while senior wide receiver Dylan Paschang has 16 receptions for 323 yards and a team-high six scores.
North Callaway's defense was shredded for 243 yards passing and six touchdowns in a 40-34 EMO loss Oct. 5 at Montgomery County.
"Leeper loves to throw the deep ball, which is excellent to go along with that offense," O'Neal said. "They like to stretch the field, make you defend it vertically as much as you have to horizontally.
"Our defensive backs are going to have to stay back and make sure that they're making their reads."
Junior quarterback Jadon Henry has completed 54-of-94 passes (57 percent) for 993 yards, 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions for the Thunderbirds. Senior wide receiver Dawson Wright guides North Callaway with 21 catches for 391 yards (18.6 average) and seven touchdowns, while senior wide receiver Chet Cunningham has 10 receptions for 226 yards (22.6 average) and three scores.
Delashmutt is second on the team with 12 catches for 200 yards (16.7 average) and three touchdowns.
South Callaway's defensive unit gave up three passing touchdowns to Wright City last week, including a pair of screen passes that went for scores of 67 and 71 yards, respectively.
"First of all, (Henry) leads their offense really well," Hess said of the Thunderbirds. "He's a distributor of the ball and then when he's called upon to make plays in the pass game, he's been very capable of doing that and he's got good guys to throw it to.
"Those guys are making plays, they're good route-runners. They run challenging routes, routes that will set you up for failure. We might be in situations where they catch the ball, but we can't allow them to break a tackle and then take it 60 yards for a touchdown."
Leeper leads the South Callaway defense with 81 tackles and five interceptions from his strong safety position. Belcher is second with 48.5 tackles at his nose guard spot, while junior outside linebacker Nick Mealy has tallied a team-high three sacks.
"The same thing that always impresses you about a South Callaway defense, they swarm to the ball," O'Neal said. "They're very aggressive, they play downhill.
"They have their keys and once they make that read, they are fast to attack the football."
Ball security and eliminating drive-stalling penalties will be top priorities for the North Callaway offense tonight, according to O'Neal.
"We have to stay ahead of the chains this week," he said. "We can't have costly penalties, we have to make sure we're gaining yards on every play, and we have to take care of the football.
"We can't turn it over — South Callaway is known for that defensively, getting turnovers. We've got to make sure that we don't give them extra possessions and we make the most of our possessions."
Delashmutt directs the Thunderbirds' defense with 75 tackles and three interceptions from his middle linebacker position. Brush has posted a team-high 8.5 sacks at defensive end, while Wright and Henry both have three interceptions at free safety and strong safety, respectively.
"They're a very fundamentally sound defense," Hess said. "They know exactly what they need to do, they get lined up consistently and then they have great athletes on that side of the ball.
"They've got that swarm mentality, they're physical. It's going to be a huge challenge for us offensively. We want to get some first downs, keep their offense off the field and don't turn the ball over."
The EMO title is no longer part of the intrigue tonight, but District 5 seeds are certainly at stake. South Callaway and North Callaway switched places after last week's games, with the Bulldogs moving up to the No. 2 seed with 44.38 points.
The Thunderbirds dropped to the No. 3 seed with 41.2 points.
"Honestly, it's a game to start the playoff-type atmosphere," O'Neal said. "You're going to play a Week 9 game that's going to be just as tough as the games that we're going to play in districts, so we just have to be focused and get ready to roll."
"I think that the whole atmosphere and everything that goes along with this game, it's not going to change much whether it's Week 5 or Week 9 — all of that's just kind of the same," Hess said. "The other factors, the other variables are what adds a little extra appeal to it."
North Callaway owns a 13-7 edge in the Callaway Cup series after stopping South Callaway's seven-game winning streak with a dramatic 33-29 victory in Kingdom City last year.