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story.lead_photo.caption Blair Oaks quarterback Dylan Hair runs the ball between Lutheran North defensive backs Toriano Pride (left) and Elisha Thanga (right) during last Saturday's Class 3 quarterfinal game at the Falcon Athletic Complex in Wardsville. Photo by Liv Paggiarino / News Tribune.

WARDSVILLE — The Blair Oaks Falcons have already knocked off the No. 1 team in the state, a team full of Division I prospects.

To keep their season going, they'll need to beat an unranked team that's also full of Division I potential.

Blair Oaks, ranked No. 4 in Class 3, will be playing in the state semifinals for sixth time in nine seasons, going on the road this afternoon to face the Cardinal Ritter Lions. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. in St. Louis.

"When you turn on the tape, you try to take short breaths, because they take your breath away," Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said. "They're just so athletic."

The Falcons (11-1) just played an athletic team in Lutheran North, dominating the second half of last Saturday's quarterfinal game for a 44-9 win.

LePage said Blair Oaks is looking to use that win as a confidence boost heading into today's game.

"It could really propel us into playing a team that is really prolific offensively this week," he said. "We're going to have to be on our A game."

Cardinal Ritter (4-3) lost all three of its regular-season games before steamrolling through the Class 3 playoffs, outscoring opponents 200-42. The Lions won 45-7 last Saturday against previously unbeaten Kennett in the quarterfinals.

Highlighting the Cardinal Ritter offense is junior wide receiver Luther Burden III (6-foot, 180 pounds), who has 31 catches for 895 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games.

Burden, who committed to play at Oklahoma earlier this season, finished with seven catches for 241 yards and three touchdowns against Kennett.

"He's the fastest guy on the field," LePage said. "His ability to run through, run over and run past you are about as good as anybody we've seen.

"He's fantastic when he has his hands on the football, he's so scary. You've got to be able to tackle him low and try to get him before he gets out, because when he gets out, you might not bring him back down."

However, Burden is just one of four receivers the Falcons will have to contend with.

Senior Keavian Long (5-9, 165) has 22 catches for 522 yards and four touchdowns, while senior Amaryrious Edwards (6-0, 170) has 16 catches for 382 yards and four scores. Sophomore Fredrick Moore also has eight receptions for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

"The biggest thing that we took away from looking at them is they're going to throw the ball down the field," LePage said.

Getting the ball to those receivers is senior quarterback TJ Atkins (6-1, 185), who was a receiver in his first three seasons with the Lions. Transitioning to behind center has suited him just fine this season, as he has completed 80-of-132 passes for 1,934 yards with 24 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Seven of those touchdown passes came against Kennett.

"He finds his targets, he buys time, he looks to throw more than he looks to run, but he can scramble to make plays," LePage said of Atkins, who has committed to Southern Illinois. "He's really matured as a quarterback."

Defenses have had a hard time stopping the Lions' receivers, whether they catch short passes on bubble screens or deep passes on go routes.

"It's scary because you're caught in between," LePage said. "Do you play deep? Do you play close? If you play close, they run by you. If you play deep, they can throw it in front of you and make you miss."

On top of that, Cardinal Ritter has a Division I running back in Will Jackson (5-11, 185), a senior who has committed to Tulsa. Jackson has 55 carries for 590 yards and four touchdowns.

"The guy, every time he touches the ball, it almost seems like it's a first down," LePage said.

LePage said the biggest takeaway from watching Cardinal Ritter on film is its big-play capabilities. In their past three games, 15 of the Lions' 21 touchdowns have come on play of 20 yards or more.

"They're going to pass the ball and catch it, they're just too good at it," LePage said. "What you can't allow is the run after the catch."

Cardinal Ritter's defense has been solid as well in the postseason, not allowing more than two touchdowns in a single game after allowing 40.3 points per game in the regular season.

LePage said the Lions' defense will closely resemble that of Lutheran North, with four linemen, two linebackers and five in the secondary.

"For preparation, at least we've seen what we're going to see, but we didn't have a lot of success in the first half last week," LePage said. "We've got to find some answers for it early."

Junior linebacker Dorian Stone leads the Lions with 61 tackles, including nine against Kennett, while senior linemen Sam Keeper and Richead McKinnies have combined for seven sacks.

Last weekend, Cardinal Ritter switched to a five-man front to slow down Kennett's rushing attack. That shifted the focus to the Lions' strength: their secondary.

Senior safety Nyjahl Vaughn and sophomore safety Marvin Burks Jr. each have two interceptions for Cardinal Ritter. Freshman defensive back Marlyn Jones is second on the team with 58 tackles.

"They control you getting off the line of scrimmage," LePage said.

One of the keys to victory is keeping Cardinal Ritter from taking an early lead, LePage said. In their three losses — to Class 6 Francis Howell, Class 5 Jackson and Class 4 Helias — the Lions fell behind early.

"You've got to get them in a situation where you feel like you have a little bit of an answer for what they're trying to do," LePage said.

Notes: St. Louis City COVID-19 restrictions will be enforced at today's game. Only two tickets will be offered for each player, coach and cheerleader. This is the first football meeting between Blair Oaks and Cardinal Ritter, the third time the Falcons are playing a team for the first time this season. The others were Knob Noster and Valle Catholic. Cardinal Ritter and Blair Oaks played each other in the Class 3 state semifinals in boys basketball in March, with the Lions defeating the Falcons 68-54 en route to a state title. Burden scored 16 points in the win. Blair Oaks is 5-4 all-time in state semifinal games. Their last state semifinal appearance was in 2018, a 48-21 win against Lutheran North. The Falcons have won 25 of their last 26 games away from the Falcon Athletic Complex dating back to the start of the 2016 season. The winner of today's game advances to the Class 3 state championship, which will be held next Saturday at Adkins Stadium. They will face the winner of the other semifinal game between No. 8 Cassville (10-2) and No. 9 Maryville (10-3). That contest will also start at 1 p.m. today in Maryville.

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