KINGDOM CITY — North Callaway coach Kevin O'Neal deftly dances around the attempt to establish this as the Thunderbirds' toughest Eastern Missouri Conference opponent so far this season.
What O'Neal won't deny is Bowling Green will definitely pose a challenge for North Callaway when the Thunderbirds battle the Bobcats for Homecoming tonight. Kickoff for the EMO clash is at 7 p.m.
North Callaway remains perfect on the season at 5-0 overall and 3-0 in conference play. The Thunderbirds have toyed with their first three EMO foes (Clopton/Elsberry, Wright City and Van-Far/Community), outscoring them by an eye-popping 147-34 margin.
Bowling Green, meanwhile, is 3-2 on the season and 2-1 in the EMO. The Bobcats had their two-game winning streak halted in a humbling 50-6 EMO home loss to South Callaway last week.
Despite the setback, O'Neal is keenly aware Bowling Green is trending in the right direction in its second year under head coach Kevin Krietemeyer.
"We've had success for the first three weeks in conference and it's something that I talk about all the time, is I don't ever want to be satisfied with where we're at," O'Neal said. "We always want to improve every week.
"Other teams do that as well, and I know Bowling Green's been improving every week, too. They're a much-improved program from what they've been the last couple of years, and so that's why I think it's going to be a big test for us."
O'Neal knows restricting the Bobcats' spread offense begins with harnessing senior running back Kaleo Dade. Dade has rushed for 567 yards (5.8 average) and seven touchdowns this season.
Dade logged a game-high 116 yards on 22 carries against South Callaway last week, but was limited to just 19 yards and only five attempts in the second half as the Bulldogs took control. He accounted for Bowling Green's lone score on a 37-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
"That kid is a strong back, a downhill runner," O'Neal said. "What we've talked to our kids about so far this week is we can't let him go north and south.
"We have to plug gaps, we have to make him bounce, we have to make him move lateral. Once he gets his nose going north and south, man, he's a hard runner, tough to bring down."
Dade is complemented by the mobility of Bobcats junior quarterback Austin Callahan, who has rushed for 391 yards (8.3 average) and two scores. Callahan managed only 23 yards on nine carries last week and was intercepted three times by South Callaway, including one that was returned for a touchdown.
"I'm very impressed with (Callahan's) running ability — that kid is slippery in the backfield, in the pocket," O'Neal said. " As a defensive line — when one guy gets there — you can't stop your pass rush, you can't lose your lane integrity, because he's going to make the first guy miss almost 90 percent of the time.
"As a defense, that puts extra stress on you because you know that you could have everybody locked down in (pass) coverage and he's going to take off running."
Bowling Green gave up 266 yards of total offense last week out of its 4-3 defensive alignment, including 170 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Dade has a team-high 69 tackles on the season from his linebacker position.
"Dade is probably one of the best linebackers we're going to see in the conference," O'Neal said. "He does a good job of sitting back and diagnosing a play, and hitting a gap hard."
North Callaway rushed for 209 yards as a team in last week's 48-14 EMO victory at home against Van-Far/Community. Senior running back Jordan Delashmutt led the way with 79 yards on 10 carries and three touchdowns.
Delashmutt directs the Thunderbirds with 557 yards (10.3 average) and 10 scores on the season. Senior running back Dakota Brush is next with 278 yards (5.9 average) and seven touchdowns.
O'Neal stressed North Callaway will have to be good at blocking on the move against Bowling Green's fast defensive line.
"We have to make sure that we are quick off the ball as well — our feet are good, our hand-placement is good," O'Neal said. "Those guys can slip off pretty quickly if you're not matching that intensity and them getting off the ball.
"You can't stand-and-catch some guys like that."
While running the ball remains the Thunderbirds' top priority, their passing game has shown steady progress. Junior quarterback Jadon Henry has five touchdown passes in the last two games and 10 for the season.
Henry — who has been intercepted only twice — is 25-of-38 passing (66 percent) for 599 yards. Senior wide receiver Dawson Wright guides North Callaway with nine catches for 238 yards (26.4 average) and six scores, while senior wide receiver Chet Cunningham has emerged with eight receptions for 183 yards (22.9 average) and three touchdowns.
"We want to be known as a team that controls the line of scrimmage, that can run the football and throw when we want to, not because we have to," O'Neal said.
North Callaway entered the Class 2 Missouri Media Rankings for the first time this season at No. 10 this week. The Thunderbirds had received votes each of the four previous weeks.