Carter Bell and Nijel McIntosh have drawn loud cheers from Bettendorf football spectators this season with jaw-dropping passes and runs.
North Scott’s Nile McLaughlin and Jared Rus have plowed through opponents for nearly 2,000 rushing yards with their power and persistence.
But when you ask the two respective coaches what Friday night’s Class 4A state quarterfinal at TouVelle Stadium boils down to, they point to the boys in the trenches.
“When it comes to playoff football, who can establish the line of scrimmage?” North Scott coach Kevin Tippet said. “You better be able to stop the run and be able to establish the run on offense.”
Whatever team can do that likely will earn a trip to the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls next week.
Ninth-ranked North Scott (9-1) never has been to the semifinal round. Fourth-ranked Bettendorf (9-1) is trying to get there for the fourth time in five seasons.
“We’re excited, but we don’t want to look too far ahead," North Scott lineman Cole Ernst said. "We know the stakes, and we’re ready to go play.”
The Lancers have leaned on their offensive line of Ernst (6-foot-4, 325), Sam Reyes (6-2, 270), Carson Kruse (5-10, 190), Zach Petersen (6-4, 220) and Grant Hansel (5-11, 220) all season to a district title. North Scott has rushed for almost 2,800 yards — sixth most in 4A.
“We don’t care who we are going up against,” Ernst said. “If our offensive line sticks to the basics, take the right steps and block who we’re supposed to block, we can move the football.”
The challenge for North Scott is doing that against a Bettendorf defensive front that has superior quickness on the outside with Jatten Kuhrt and Rocky Schoenfelder along with freshman Griffin Liddle (6-3, 240) and Desani Carter (6-1, 265) clogging the inside.
Bettendorf, also a district champion, has allowed only two touchdowns in the last 19 quarters. Kuhrt and Schoenfelder have teamed for 27 tackles for loss.
“North Scott is really good up front,” Bettendorf coach Aaron Wiley said. “(Rus) is just a physical, tough runner. He’s a little bit like (Keegan) Glaus for us last year, where he just runs at you downhill. We’re going to have to wrap him up and get a lot of hats on him because he’ll run through you.”
On the flip side, Bettendorf’s offensive line has gradually improved throughout the season. It features three juniors in Jax Dormire (5-11, 235), Griffen Deere (6-2, 290) and Cole Buhman (6-4, 245) along with seniors Joe Moffitt (6-1, 295) and John Cavins (6-3, 210).
Moffitt believes the Bulldogs’ line play is the most improved aspect of the team since Week 1.
The Bulldogs rushed for more than 260 yards in last week’s win over Pleasant Valley. With cold, windy conditions in that contest, the second half turned into smash-mouth football.
“It is definitely a lot more fun, a lot more physical,” Moffitt said. “You feel a lot better after the game knowing you made a big impact.
“We’re just doing a much better job getting our pad level down. If we can run the ball this week, it will open up a lot on offense.”
North Scott counters with an aggressive defense, anchored by Petersen (15 tackles for loss) and Taylor Hendricksen (7 TFL) up front and a linebacking crew that contains leading tackler Drew Durant and Rus.
Other than a second half in which it allowed 27 points to Dubuque Senior, North Scott has limited every other opponent to 21 points or fewer. The Lancers have consistently gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The task for North Scott is slowing down Bell and McIntosh.
“A quarterback like Bell puts a lot of stress on a defense,” Tippet said. “Sometimes you can have everything defended just like you draw it up and he just makes a play. He out-athletes you.
“With them, if you focus so much on Bell, McIntosh can beat you or (Darien) Porter or (Ben) Wilson. We’ve got to make sure each guy does his job.”
Both teams are brimming with confidence.
North Scott has won nine straight since the season-opening loss to Davenport Assumption. Bettendorf has reeled off nine in a row since the seven-point loss to West Des Moines Valley.
It'll be the first meeting between the old Mississippi Athletic Conference rivals in two years.
“Our confidence has changed a lot since earlier in the year,” Bell said. “We’ve gotten better and better each week. I think we’re playing our best right now.
“The key now is, we’ve got to get the job done. We’ve got to execute.”
For North Scott's seniors, the UNI-Dome has been on its mind since the end of last year.
“It is pretty special knowing nobody else has ever gone to the Dome, but we’ve still got an end goal in mind,” Rus said. “The (Dome) was our goal coming into the season, during offseason workouts. Nothing has changed.”
Even though it marks just the second quarterfinal appearance in program history, Tippet doesn’t believe his team will be overwhelmed by the moment on the road against a program rich with tradition.
“I’m confident we’re going to show up and play well,” he said. “Some years around here when we’ve hit milestones and goals, we’re happy with that. I haven’t seen that from our players. It has been a workman-like week. We’ve preached a next-game mentality, and our kids have bought into that.”