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  • Val T.

Week 11 preview: Continuing to adjust, Zebras seek sectional final berth against Benton Central


Sports Editor, RTC

Class 2A, Sectional 34 semifinal: Rochester (9-1) at Benton Central (4-6), 7 p.m.

(winner plays Lewis Cass-Lafayette Central Catholic winner in final)

Some football adjustments occur in the spur of the moment, like Rochester noticing that Seeger’s kickoff return team was taking a step back before the ball was kicked and using that to successfully attempt an onside kick with a 24-12 lead in the third quarter.

Mitchell Shafer recovered that kick, which led to another Rochester touchdown and two-point conversion in an eventual 40-12 win.

Some adjustments take some planning. Freshman Carson Paulik was quarterbacking the JV team, but for the Seeger game, the coaches turned him into a tight end even though he had never played that position before.

That gave Rochester an occasional two tight-end look out of their wing-T offense with Alex Griggs on one side and Paulik on the other. The Zebras mashed out 404 rushing yards and continued their offensive roll. They are averaging 40 points and 394 rushing yards during their five-game winning streak.

“I had made the decision over the weekend that we were going to move him there and see how he did based solely on his play as a JV player and his aggressiveness and some of the things he had done in JV games,” Rochester coach Ron Shaffer said. “So it wasn’t really about the position he was playing; it was about the physicality and the speed at which he played the game at the JV level.”

Shaffer said Paulik was “not bad.”

“There’s a lot to do to become a pretty good tight end,” Shaffer said. “But he survived. He was able to wall people off, and it gave us a lot of opportunities to expose players that we wanted to in their defense.”

Defensively, they might also be peaking. Seeger’s 12 points last week were a season low, and the Zebras held the Patriots to just 84 yards of offense in the second half.

A lineup with Xavier Vance at defensive end and Hunter Shriver at tackle gave Seeger a different look from a more familiar 4-4 alignment.

“That was a preparation for that week also,” Shaffer said. “You know, a lot of what we do with playing players one way is to not necessarily … I don’t want to use the word … survive but to be able to get through the regular season without a lot of dings, bumps and bruises that you get from playing both ways. So the plan all along has been to increase their number of reps on both sides of the ball as we get into the playoffs.”

The issue this week is that while Rochester’s defense might be playing at its best, Benton Central’s offense might also be peaking. The Bison scored a season high in points in a 34-7 win over Delphi last week, a breakthrough for a team that was shut out in three of its final four regular season games.

The 34 points were the most for Benton Central in a postseason game since 2012.

That fact might be indicative that when good things happen to Benton Central football, it forces one to check the historical record:

  • For example, Benton Central has four wins this season, as many in the previous four seasons combined.

  • Their win over Delphi last week was their first in a postseason game since 2014, and their four wins this season are their most since 2012.

  • They have had four winless seasons since 2009.

  • They have never won a sectional title in football.

Andy Standifer, a 1995 North Judson grad who was a long snapper on three bowl teams at Purdue, was tasked with building a winning atmosphere at Benton Central when he was hired in June 2021. An assistant coach on the Bison staff for four years prior to being named head coach, he is Benton Central’s fifth coach since 2014.

Standifer relies on a spread offense with junior quarterback Joe Widmer throwing to a group of receivers that includes seniors Holden Deno and Seth Plummer and juniors Dylan Musser and Corbin Cooley. They take a “mix and match” approach with their receivers, according to Shaffer. Occasionally, there will be three receivers on one side of the formation.

Also, they will try a “now screen,” in which Widmer will quickly dump it to a receiver while the other receivers set up a wall of blocks for him. Junior Korbin Waber can play both wing and tight end and could also factor into the passing game but whose primary role will be as a blocker.

Deno and Plummer are two of the team’s three seniors, and they will also start at the two outside linebacker spots on defense. The third senior is Josh Etter, who will start at both running back and inside linebacker.

The offensive line consists of four sophomores and a junior.

Shaffer said Benton Central will pass it more often than they will run it.

“He’s a pretty good quarterback,” Shaffer said of Widmer. “Strong arm. He’s able to read defenses well when he has the time, and he extends plays very well with his feet. He’s very. very similar to Izaak Wright from Wabash. He reminds me of Izaak Wright a lot in the way he can extend the play with his feet. He’s really OK with taking the short, five-yard hitches and outs and then trying to hit the big one every once in awhile.

“Their number one goal is to throw the ball. They’re about 80-20 throwing the ball to running it. So you really have to be good on the back end against them.”

Defensively, Benton Central will start only two players who weigh more than 200 pounds. They play a 4-2-5 defense, but if Deno and Plummer move up to the linebacker spots, it will more likely resemble a 4-4.

“We’ll see how that goes,” Shaffer said. “We normally don’t get to see that defense out of people very often. We’re anticipating a little bit of a change. What that change is, we just expose our guys to different things. And a lot of times, we’ll just recall in the middle of a game like, ‘Hey, they’re lining up like Seeger. They’re lining up like this team did and make those adjustments in that way. And our kids are pretty adaptive to that.”

This is the first meeting between the schools. No. 7 Rochester is seeking their first trip to a sectional final and their first 10-win season since 2000. If Rochester wins, they would host Lewis Cass or Lafayette Central Catholic in the sectional final.

Hunter Campbell will miss the game with a broken foot for the Zebras. He joins D.J. Basham (broken ankle) and Gavin McKee (broken leg) on the injured list.

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