KINGDOM CITY — The North Callaway Thunderbirds' defense has been in a mad rush in recent weeks, and that has been a crippling detriment for opposing offenses.
North Callaway will look to maintain its unbeaten status tonight when it makes a trip down Interstate 70 to Wright City for an Eastern Missouri Conference clash with the Wildcats. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
The Thunderbirds' defense sacked Clopton/Elsberry junior quarterback Shawn Yates five times — four coming from senior defensive end Dakota Brush — and held the IndianHawks to minus-13 yards rushing as North Callaway (3-0) charged to a 47-0 blitz in its EMO opener last week in Kingdom City.
The week before in a 35-12 victory at Tipton, the Thunderbirds sacked sophomore quarterback Blake Fischer four times and limited the Cardinals to minus-8 yards rushing.
North Callaway head coach Kevin O'Neal pointed out the defensive unit has excelled due to its comfort with the system, a fact that was not disrupted by a coaching change within the staff during the offseason.
"They know the defense so well and they know where they're supposed to be, and coach (Ronnie) Kimbley taking over as defensive coordinator from coach (Ross) Rosenbaum has been a seamless transition," O'Neal said. "He's done a great job of keeping it going.
"Those guys just know what they're supposed to do — they know where they're supposed to fit, they know the reads they're supposed to make and they're doing a great job with it."
The Thunderbirds will get the opportunity to torment a freshman quarterback tonight at Wright City. In his first year as a varsity starter for the Wildcats (2-1, 1-0 EMO), 6-foot-3, 175-pound Hayden Beck has completed 36-of-61 passes (59 percent) for 625 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions.
"I know coach (Jeffery) Sargent is excited about this young man that he has at quarterback now," O'Neal said. "Watching him on film, he has a very good arm — he makes some freshman mistakes, but he's going to learn as the year goes on.
"For a young kid, his timing right now — all of the routes that they're running — he's getting the ball out on time."
Beck's top target to this point has been junior wide receiver Jeremy Cundiff, who leads the Wildcats with 21 catches for 413 yards (19.7 average) and three touchdowns. Will Janowski, another junior wide receiver, has 13 receptions for 206 yards (15.8 average) and two scores.
"They work well together," O'Neal said. "Coach Sargent does a good job of putting them on the same side (of the formation) sometimes, and then splitting them up sometimes.
"You have to make sure that you know where they're at, defensively."
O'Neal said North Callaway's defense can't allow Beck to have too much time to set up in the pocket, or his receivers to get a free release into their routes.
"We're going to have to be physical again — up front, we're going to have to get pressure, a lot of that to disrupt that timing," O'Neal said. "Our cornerbacks and our safeties, when these guys are in their routes, we have to make sure we're physical at the line of scrimmage.
"With the pass rush we're getting from the guys up front, we can't just let (the receivers) run down the field without getting hands on them."
The Thunderbirds, though, can't ignore Wright City's running game. Senior running back Jayden Mahaney has a team-high 287 yards rushing (6.5 average) and two touchdowns on 44 carries for the Wildcats.
"He has a lot of speed, he's a fast kid," O'Neal said. "They really try to get to the edge with him, so we're going to have to make sure that our edge defenders are prepared, and we're setting the edge and not losing contain.
"When he gets in open space, he's going to move."
Wright's City's 4-2-5 defensive alignment will be anchored by a pair of linebackers — senior Ryan Charlesworth (30 tackles) and junior Shane Vehige (34). Senior defensive end Riley Womack has logged a team-high three sacks, while Janowski has two interceptions from his strong safety spot.
North Callaway amassed a season-high 545 yards of total offense last week against Clopton/Elsberry. Senior running back Jordan Delashmutt and Brush accounted for 338 yards rushing and four touchdowns as the Thunderbirds piled up 441 yards on the ground.
"My offensive line, I'm very proud of how we're starting to gel and communicate," O'Neal said. "We made those (blocking) adjustments a lot quicker (against Clopton/Elsberry) than we did the week before at Tipton.
"I've been very pleased with the progress of my offensive line and hopefully we continue that."