Week 5 preview: Rochester seeks to stop Valley TRC dominance in Bell game
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Rochester (4-0, 3-0 Three Rivers Conference) at Tippecanoe Valley (4-0, 3-0), 7 p.m.
The man to watch when the Rochester and Tippecanoe Valley football teams meet at Smith-Bibler Field, Home of Death Valley Football, is Alex Griggs. Or perhaps more accurately said, Griggs is the man to not watch.
That’s because he is Rochester’s punter, but he has not punted in four weeks.
Since halftime of the Southwood game in their season opener on Aug. 19, the Rochester offense has scored 27 touchdowns in 32 possessions. In two of the five possessions in which they did not score, they went into the victory formation to drain the clock in eventual wins.
In other words, they were not even trying to score in those possessions.
They have scored 122 points in their last two games, their most in a two-game span since 2008.
The Zebras are averaging 51.3 points per game, sixth in the state. They have gained over 400 yards of offense in three of their four games this season. The one game they did not gain over 400 yards was a game against Whitko in which they scored 70 points.
In four games, they have committed two turnovers and punted once. One of the turnovers was in the fourth quarter of the Wabash game last week when the Zebras were nursing a 39-point lead.
And having said all that, Class 2A, No. 11 Rochester might not be the favorite going into their Bell game tilt.
After all, Valley has won 13 consecutive regular season games. They have won eight consecutive TRC home games, a streak that coincidentally started with a 54-0 win over the Zebras in the 2020 Bell game. Valley is 16-1 in their last 17 TRC games overall.
They have won the last three Bell games played at Death Valley.
As prolific as Rochester’s offense has been, it should be noted that Valley’s offense has been productive too: Since the start of the 2020 season, Valley has scored 40 or more points in a game 15 times, including the last three weeks against Northfield, Peru and Manchester.
From the time many of the players in this game were born, the Bell has been a symbol of TRC dominance. From 2004 through 2014, one or the other, or both, shared the TRC. That included the 2007 Bell game, which was the last time both teams came into the Bell game undefeated.
Rochester won that game 14-13 at Barnhart Field as part of an undefeated regular season.
But that might not be necessarily true lately, especially in Southwood’s four-year dominance of the TRC from 2017-20.
For at least one game, the old era could be back. And after last year’s Bell game was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it might only lead to an increase in anticipation.
It’s an era Rochester might hope for. 2014 was both the last time Rochester won at Death Valley and the last time Rochester won the TRC.
Valley offense vs. Rochester defense
So how might this game be decided? One way would be for the Rochester defense to slow down the fast-starting Vikings. Valley scored on the first play from scrimmage against Northfield, led 28-7 after one quarter against Peru and 22-0 after one quarter against Manchester.
They have not trailed after the first quarter in any of their four games so far.
“I would say focus,” Valley coach Stephen Moriarty said of the hot offensive starts. “We’ve been focused in getting our blocks where we need to be. I think that being prepared for your opponent is a lot of it.”
The Zebras are wary of Valley’s Wade Jones and Nate Parker. They like to get both the ball in multiple ways, according to Rochester coach Ron Shaffer.
Jones was a state qualifier in the 200 meters in track last spring and might be among the fastest players the Zebras will face this year. The rocket sweep, in which the quarterback pitches the ball to Jones as he goes in motion, is a popular Valley play call.
“They’re going to hand him the ball on power,” Shaffer said. “They’re going to send him in motion and pitch the ball to him on rocket. They’re going to hit him on now screens. They’re going to get him down the field and throw the ball from a wideout position. They’re going to bring him out of motion and put him in a flood route. So, a variety of ways. He creates some defensive nightmares for us as to how to stop a guy like that. He’s dangerous every time he touches the ball.”
Shaffer expects a “good dose” of Cody Eastgate and Parker at quarterback, but Parker also plays running back when Eastgate is playing quarterback.
Valley also has a new-look offensive line with Evan Maish and Alex Bailey at tackle, Blake Wiggs and Jeremy Schwenk at guard and Luke Parson at center.
Parson is the biggest of the three interior linemen at 209 pounds, but their ability to quickly get out of their stance and execute their blocks has helped the Valley offense continue to pile on points, even after the graduation of all-TRC linemen like D.J. Estep and Wade Melanson and skill position stars like Branson McBrier, Braden Shepherd, Jamasyn Virgil and Rex Kirchenstien.
And with fullback Dalton Alber, he can be like another lineman.
“A lot of power,” Shaffer said. “They’re going to block down, pull the back side guard and kick out with the fullback (Alber). … And then there’s old school iso: They’re bringing that fullback through the ‘B’ gap and go mano a mano with your linebackers, and they get straight on to you. And then they run a reach scheme with their rocket or pitch game out to Wade. So they’re trying to stretch you defensively and create alleys for him to cut through.”
Moriarty sees a Zebra defense that has strong defensive ends in Alex Deming and Ethan Brock. Brock had two sacks in the second half against Wabash.
“I think they are their playmakers,” Moriarty said of Deming and Brock on defense. “They have good quickness at linebacker, and they’re very disciplined at reading the ball. Their tackles up front do their jobs as well, but the defensive ends are the ones who kind of clean up everything for them. It will be key for our offense to make sure we get them blocked.”
Rochester offense vs. Valley defense
Shaffer was asked if the Zebras have shown more variety out of their wing-T offense than last year.
“The kids are just familiar with what we’re doing,” Shaffer said. “I mean, we run six plays. We don’t do a whole lot. The kids have confidence in knowing that we’re going to go out there and run a certain set of plays and execute them to the best ability that we can. … It’s not Wabash variety. It’s not Southwood variety. We don’t line up in tons of formations, though we have some things that we do with formations. I think our variety comes from the way we run our counters, the way we attack you in the passing game. That variety is that everything still looks the same. It looks like a run play, and then all of a sudden, (Payton) Luhnow is behind you 15 yards. So everything in our offense should look like a run play, whether it’s run or pass or whether it's counter. So the varsity just comes when we pick when we want to use that deception to our advantage.”
Moriarty said that Shaffer excels at dissecting the opponent’s defensive weaknesses and then calling plays to exploit those weaknesses. Every play that Rochester runs seems to set up the next one – belly, then dive, then counter, then toss. If the Valley defense crashes down on one possibility of a play, then the Zebras can burn their opponent on another.
Given that, even though Moriarty is well aware of Deming’s abilities at fullback – he has rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 of his last 12 games, he said the Valley defense is taking a more holistic approach of stopping the Rochester offense.
“I think it’s more of almost an area of control, making sure that we don't give up our ground and that every gap is covered is more of our worry,” Moriarty said. “We didn’t want to break down and have everybody because one gap affects the next gap and so on and so forth. So I believe if we can maintain that defensive line not letting the offensive line get up to our linebackers will be key. … It’s hard not to bite on one thing or the other because what you do is you leave yourself vulnerable in other spots. So staying balanced and having assignment football on defense will help slow them down. I’m not sure it will stop them, but it will help slow them down.”
Shaffer said that his team won’t change blocking schemes but that they must be wary of Alber causing havoc from his defensive end spot.
“As far as double-teaming, our schemes at different times will call for double teams in different places,” Shaffer said. “Are we singling out and saying we’ve got to change our blocking schemes? No. But there are times for sure where we have to be accountable to where Alber is at. He’s an all-conference defensive end and will probably end up being Junior All-State this year.”
Rochester is listed as having three two-way starters. Valley has eight two-way starters. Game time temperature is expected to be 78 degrees.
Shaffer gave Colin Weiand a start at defensive tackle last week. Though Xavier Vance and Hunter Shriver have also seen time there this year, Shaffer said he would prefer that Vance and Shriver play offense only.
Shaffer said that his team has dedicated about 25 minutes a day in practice this week – a more-than-typical number – to special teams. Said Moriarty: “I think field position will be a big factor in this game.”
Moriarty complimented the Rochester offensive line. “I think that their linemen up front, they have good size, and they finish blocks,” Moriarty said. “So they’re a very good offensive line, and we’re going to have to be able to match that physicality-wise.”
Shaffer was named the Indiana Football Coaches Association Colts Coach of the Week nominee for District IV. Rochester is 9-3 since Shaffer became coach in 2021. They were 1-14 in the 15 games prior to Shaffer taking over. “I’m thankful that my peers have recognized me, but it’s our kids that are doing the work,” Shaffer said. Moriarty has won this award in his region twice previously.
Valley’s Kyler Johnson and Cameron Mason will each miss their third straight games due to injury. Rochester all-TRC center Austin Rogers is expected to play despite twisting his ankle returning a squib kickoff against Wabash.