Week 8 preview: With 4th different QB, streaking Pioneer found Sweet spot on offense
After win over Caston, Culver hopes for more marathon drives
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Pioneer (5-2, 4-1 Hoosier North) at Culver (2-3, 1-3), 7 p.m.
The Pioneer football team has not had stability at quarterback, but it has not kept them from winning five straight games.
Pioneer beat Knox 34-14 last week in Caleb Sweet’s first career start at quarterback. Sweet started the season at left tackle, and he has also seen time at tight end.
Sweet is the fourth different starter under center for the Panthers. Cayden Hill, Eli Nicoll and Brock Robinson had also made starts at quarterback.
Sweet completed three of four passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns, and he also ran for 12 yards. Robinson, who had been the quarterback the previous four games taking snaps from the shotgun formation, moved back to the fullback position he occupied in 2020 and contributed 52 yards rushing and a touchdown. He also caught a 52-yard touchdown pass from Sweet.
Derrick LeGrand also had a touchdown reception.
Pioneer coach Adam Berry said he had contemplated starting Sweet at quarterback earlier in the season, but he decided against it when Sweet needed to be quarantined. The Panthers beat Triton 26-6 on Sept. 24, but Pioneer had fewer than 200 yards of offense.
So he decided to put Sweet under center and abandon the shotgun.
“Really it was one of those things where we thought about it once we got Brock back,” Berry said. “But that was a time where Caleb was quarantined. And so we couldn’t really work on it. And then we had some success with Brock as the quarterback running a lot of the time. … Still, even with Brock at quarterback, it wasn’t where our offense needed to be or where we wanted it to be. We went back and watched some film when Brock was a true fullback, and he was just hitting the hole so much quicker when we’re under center. It was just something that we were missing.
“Credit Triton for playing really well against us, but it’s one of those things where the offense definitely wasn't where we wanted it to be, so we had a lot of discussion as a coaching staff last weekend going into (the) Knox (game), how could we make our offense better? What are we truly best at? What fits our personnel better? And it’s one of those things where being under center fits our personnel better at this point.”
In addition, Beau Mersch has emerged as a wingback. He ran for 144 yards and two touchdown on just four carries. Berry said Mersch gives the Pioneer offense “home run capability.”
This week, the challenge for the offense might be trying to block Culver junior linebacker Shane Shuman. Shuman, who is also Culver’s fullback on offense, made the Junior All-Star team at linebacker last year even though he was only a sophomore.
“He’s definitely someone that we need to focus on and try to take away, so he doesn’t cause havoc in the backfield,” Berry said of Shuman.
In addition to a strong game from Shuman, Culver would also figure to benefit by another game with a positive turnover margin. Culver had three takeaways and no giveaways in their 22-14 win over Caston last week. Oliver Morgan and Emiliano Ortiz had interceptions, and Tucker Fisher had a fumble recovery.
The Cavaliers also had a 99-yard touchdown drive.
“They punted it down to the 1-yard line, and we took that thing 99 yards on a drive that lasted more than 13 minutes or so,” Culver coach Mike Zehner said. “So we burned up an entire quarter on that drive and converted two fourth downs. Just an awesome drive, just really set the tone of the game. We controlled the ball, and we controlled the clock the entire second half and ended up punching that one in.”
As for facing Pioneer, Zehner said Sweet played well both offensively against Knox and also mentioned that he is “a heck of a linebacker” on defense. He said the Pioneer offense looked “comfortable” with Sweet under center.
Pioneer’s team speed also looms large, according to Zehner.
“They’ve got some weapons,” Zehner said. “They’re quick. Their team speed is second to none. I understand that Winamac beat them earlier in the season, but this isn’t the team that Winamac saw either. They’re getting healthy, and they’re getting guys in the right spots in the right time. They’re going to be a tough out for anybody.”
Culver is 0-6 against Pioneer since they became conference rivals in 2015. Pioneer has scored at least 48 points in all six of those games.
Culver is 0-7 against Pioneer all-time. That includes a loss in the 1992 sectional.