MUSCATINE — The heat is on.
The Muscatine football team started red-hot from Week 1 and has been cooking ever since, rising to No. 7 in the latest Associated Press Class 4A poll with a 3-1 record coming out of a challenging non-district slate.
District play was going to turn up the burners no matter what, but a critical district-opening clash with No. 8 Bettendorf is bringing the Muskies to a boil.
"We've been looking forward to getting going in district play," Muscatine coach Jake Mueller said. "We know the intensity and stakes are raised tremendously and our guys are going to be ready to play in a big game, and we know it's a big game for both teams. You train hard in the offseason to prepare for games like this."
Bettendorf also put itself through the wringer in non-district play, with losses to No. 1 West Des Moines Valley and No. 3 Cedar Rapids Washington along with wins over former Mississippi Athletic Conference foes Davenport Assumption and Pleasant Valley.
As is the case with many 4A teams looking for one of two playoff spots in their district, the tough schedule has made the Bulldogs look that much more formidable.
"We've brought the intensity every day in practice because we know that's what we're going to need on Friday," said senior defensive lineman Jason Gray, who recovered a fumble and recorded a tackle for loss in Muscatine's 30-13 win over North Scott last Friday.
Mueller has appreciated Gray's work on the defensive line, even if the first-year starter hasn't had a perfect start to the season.
"Each week he's getting better and better," Mueller said. "The biggest thing about Jason is even if he misses something here or there, you know the type of effort you'll get every down from him. He's going to do it full-speed, all-out, all the time."
Bettendorf is synonymous with physicality, and that's where the Muskies' intensity will have to be focused first and foremost.
Bettendorf's Keegan Glaus has established himself as a difficult assignment for opposing defenses on either side of the ball, averaging 6.8 yards per carry with seven touchdowns out of the backfield and three tackles for loss as one of the team's most prolific tacklers.
Then combine that with Iowa recruit Mark Kallenberger and Northern Illinois commit Cole Webster, who highlight of a group of Bettendorf linemen that Muscatine simply can't simulate even with the best scout team.
"We don't have any 6-foot-6, 280-pound guys we can put out there, and it seems like they have a bunch of them," Mueller said. "We've just tried to up our intensity all week long."
Respect must also be paid to the explosive athleticism of players like Bettendorf quarterback JMichael Young and one of his primary targets, Suni Lane, who has hauled in 12 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns.
To that end, Logan Nugent has started to establish himself as one of Muscatine's two-way playmakers, particularly on defense where he leads the team with two interceptions in the first four contests.
"It's nothing fancy, I just try not to get beat deep," Nugent said. "I focus on that and then do whatever I can to stay on them. … But we can't underestimate [Bettendorf], they're an amazing team and we have to go out and play ball."
Any way you slice Bettendorf's threats, it adds up to a Muscatine team that needs to get back to their typical form after a chippy non-district finale with the Lancers that resulted in Muscatine getting flagged 13 times for 132 yards.
"We're not proud of the way we handled that, that's not Muscatine football," Mueller said. "We have to play much cleaner. … We wanted to win the game and come away injury-free and that's what happened, but now we've turned our focus to getting ready for Bettendorf."
If Muscatine can clean up the costly penalties, the Muskies can get back to business with the high-powered offense and playmaking defense that brings them to TouVelle Stadium as one of the state's 10 best teams.
"Those games before were preparing us for our district and now we're here," Gray said. "We need to find that next gear and I think all the work we've put into this will help us find that."