SANDPOINT — Playoff football — replete with plenty of mud, snow and intensity — returns to Barlow Stadium tonight, when Sandpoint plays host to No. 4 ranked Middleton in the quarterfinals of the 4A state bracket.
The Bulldogs (3-6) are coming off a pair of convincing league wins against Moscow and Lakeland, earning a first round playoff bye and chance to get healthy.
The Vikings (7-3) have traditionally been a wing-T team, but this season a new spread passing attack has replaced their traditional ground-and-pound with great success, averaging more than 30 points per game this fall. Sandpoint head coach George Yarno likened their offense to Washington State’s Air Raid, with strong receivers and a quarterback who can get them the ball.
“They want to spread it out and throw it around. A lot of quick screens, but they will also go deep,” described Yarno of what he’s seen on tape. “Defensively they run a 3-4. Their lines are both really good, with some big kids in the box on both sides of the ball.”
With a wet and slick track expected, and more snow in the forecast, the game could well be decided on the ground, as throwing becomes much more difficult.
Bulldog defensive linemen Thomas Aleto, Evan Sticklemeyer, Logan Johnson and Caleb Fingel, along with linebackers Payton Cox, Alex Stockton and Tyler Lehman, will need to come up big to stop the Vikings. Quarterback Robbie Johnson returns from a knee injury to start at safety, bringing rangy athleticism and experience to the secondary.
“We’re putting a few things in to stop the run, and Alex is pretty good about roaming the field and making some plays,” said Yarno. “If we can force them into mistakes, nothing turns a game like a pick six. Hopefully we make them make some mistakes in the snow. We need to keep the ball in front of us. They may have to go back to that wing T.”
Offensively the Bulldogs will look to ride the legs of emerging running back Dillan Mitton, who has more than 320 yards rushing in the past two games, while sophomore quarterback Jaxon Pettit will look for big play receivers Julian Barajas and T.J. Davis in the passing game.
Middleton hammered No. 2 ranked Bishop Kelly 28-6 earlier in the year, and are coming off a 44-7 win over Canyon Ridge in the first round of the playoffs. Their three losses are to No. 1 ranked 4A Skyview, No. 1 ranked 3A Fruitland, and 5A Kuna, so their résumé speaks for itself.
The Vikings’ defense will look a lot more like previous opponents Mt. Spokane and Eastmont, each of which held the Bulldogs to six points, than either Moscow or Lakeland, which the Bulldogs lit up for 82 points in league play.
“Their front seven is really big. Their nose guard gets off the ball quick. We’ve got to be able to run the ball,” admitted Yarno. “The deep ball that worked against Moscow will be much tougher. These guys are probably comparable to Mt. Spokane. If you run the ball a little, it opens up the pass.”
Yarno felt his team had an excellent week of practice, and got a chance to adjust to a slick field and ball on Thursday. Sloppy conditions, coupled with the Barlow Stadium crowd, makes for a great equalizer in the playoffs. Ball security, sometimes taken for granted, becomes of the essence, as a big play or two can swing a game either way.
“Playing in Sandpoint in the month of November is always a hard thing. That’s an advantage we’ll look forward to,” claimed Yarno, who expects a battle. “They’re a really good football team. We’re going to have to play a solid game to beat them, but it’s a possibility. They’ve put up better numbers, but nobody ever wins on paper. They come up here in the snow, it’s a long bus ride, anything can happen.”
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Barlow Stadium. Bob Witte and Chris Chatburn will call the game live on AM 1400 and 103 FM, which also streams online.