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Game of the Week - Oakley defense is punishing

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

OAKLEY -- The Oakley High School football team's defense allowed Elkhart's spread passing game the 5- and 10-yard passes. However, the Plainsmen continually put pressure on senior quarterback Alex Gomez, blitzed, disrupted plays behind the line of scrimmage, knocked down passes and hit hard after receivers caught the ball.

Oakley won last Friday's first-round Class 2-1A playoff game, 42-7, and recorded six tackles for loss, four passes defended, three quarterback hurries, and an interception.

"We thought we could knock the ball loose a little bit and punish them," Oakley coach Randall Rath said.

"They had a lot of kids limping at the end of the game, and I thought that took a toll on them."

The Plainsmen, Kansas' No. 1 ranked scoring defense at just 27 points allowed, even briefly knocked Gomez out of the game in the second half.

"A lot of times they are getting so much penetration that (Gomez is) backpedaling a lot," Elkhart coach Khris Buckner said. "He wasn't able to step into his throws."

Oakley's hard, physical style has helped the Plainsmen to an 8-1 record, an improvement over last year's 7-3 mark.

"The kids wanted to win, they were excited and wanted to play," Rath said. "We have talked about playing in November, and that's they are wanting to do right now."

Oakley plays host to 10-0 La Crosse on Friday night. Last season, the Plainsmen fell 20-8 on the road to the Leopards in the second round.

"I think we are looking really forward to it," senior running back Key Keller said. "We need to come out and just smack them."

Oakley is a longtime 2-1A power under Rath, but has enjoyed its best season since a sub-state berth in 2009.

"Compared to the last two years, it's been different," junior linebacker Dylan Gassmann said. "We really seem to be playing harder.

This whole summer, this was our plan - we were going to make it as far as we could."

Then, Rath, in his 24th year at Oakley and 16th as head coach, announced his resignation, effective end of the year, after Week 1. Oakley has never made a state title game in school history and has two sub-state appearances, both with Rath.

"When Rath told us that he was going to have to leave, we decided that we would try even extra harder to get him a state title," Gassmann said. "We try harder in practice, and go push it more out on the field. As Rath says, you play the way, you practice, and we have really hooked on that this year."

Rath is one of the area's most vocal, engaging coaches during games. He is constantly talking, yelling and encouraging. Even in huddles, he shows players technique.

Last Friday, he took senior lineman Gage Hayden during one break in the game, got down in a stance and showed correct form.

Keller was a little banged up and had to miss two plays early in the Elkhart contest. Rath constantly asked how Keller was doing and wanted the running back in the game. In the first quarter, Rath asked Keller to sprint harder. Keller responded with 24 carries for 258 yards and four scores.

"He demands, I shouldn't say perfection out of it, but 110 percent effort, every down and every play," Keller said. "Especially if you get dinged up on it, you've got to just fight on. It is a really great experience to play for him. This is his last year, and I have enjoyed all four years playing. It's been great."

But its Oakley's defense, led by junior nose guard Ryan Kuhn, Mason Rains and Hayden on the defensive line and Gassmann at middle linebacker, that wreaks the most havoc.

"Our defense has been our key to us all year," Rath said. Gomez finished 25 of 52 for 269 yards, but Elkhart had 22 rushes for just 51 yards. In a Week 9 victory against Ellis, Oakley limited the Railroaders to 38 passing yards and 11 rushing yards.

"A lot of it was just the physicality," Buckner said. "We were hit and miss on the run, and so it comes down to, if you can't get an established run game going down there inside, it makes it hard. They are great defensively, and they did a great job."