New conference, familiar opponent.
The Helias Crusaders and Rock Bridge Bruins spent a lot of years battling each other for the top spot in the North Central Missouri Conference. After both spent several seasons as an independent, conference bragging rights are back on the line tonight as the Crusaders (4-0 overall, 2-0 Central Missouri Activities Conference) and Bruins (4-0, 3-0) meet at Ray Hentges Stadium.
"I think the boys are really focused, we had a great week of practice and I think Rock Bridge brings that out in us," Helias coach Chris Hentges said. "It's a rivalry that goes back to the days of the NCMC, it's always a great game with them. We know we need to play our best."
The strong start for the Bruins is a bit of a surprise, as they've already surpassed last season's win total of three.
The Bruins offense are averaging 42 points per game this season, including a whopping 76 in a 27-point win last Friday against the Capital City Cavaliers in Columbia.
"They can be explosive," Hentges said.
Bryce Jackson (5-foot-9, 200-pounds sr.) leads the ground game of the Bruins. He has 80 carries for 609 yards (7.6 avg.) and eight touchdowns.
Nathan Dent (5-10, 160 jr.) is a first-year starter at quarterback for the Bruins. He is 32-of-53 through the air for 397 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions. Dent has also done damage on the ground, picking up 238 yards on 28 carries with two scores.
"He's a very strong runner who can throw the ball as well," Hentges said. "He's a dual-threat quarterback and anytime you have that threat, you pose a big problem for the defense.
"We are going to have to make sure our numbers and assignments are right — take away the running back, take away the quarterback while staying sound in our pass defense."
Payton Messer (6-2, 160, jr.) tops the Bruins with 10 receptions for 171 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, the Bruins operate out of their usual 3-4 front.
"They are getting better each week," Hentges said. "They are going to overload the box, overpopulate you by one, and try to make you throw the football.
"We're going to have to move the ball against a tough seven-man front."
Helias has done a very good job of moving the football on the ground the past two weeks, totaling more than 300 yards rushing in each game.
"We're run-blocking well, our backs are hitting the hole," Hentges said. "It's always good when you can churn out 300 yards on the ground. That means you're controlling a lot of the aspects of the football game when you can control the clock and move the chains.
"We need to have another successful night on the ground, if possible."
Helias quarterback Jake Weaver tops the Crusaders with 379 rushing yards. Jake Clement, who will play tonight after suffering a leg injury in the third quarter of last Friday's 49-28 win against Borgia, is next with 322. Ryan Klahr has 213 yards on the ground for Helias, which is averaging 6.4 yards per carry as a team.
One area on offense Hentges would like to see the Crusaders improve is in the short- to-intermediate passing game.
"We are working on quick throws, we still have a ways to go there," he said.
Tonight's matchup features two teams in the initial Missouri Media Rankings. Rock Bridge is No. 10 in Class 6, while Helias is No. 1 in Class 4.
The Crusaders have embraced the top ranking, which was released Tuesday night after the Missouri State High School Activities Association released class and district assignments Monday.
"We talked to the boys about it," Hentges said. "They were certainly aware of it, we didn't act like it doesn't exist. We feel like we've earned it, but we told the boys they need to earn it every day at practice and every week when they play a game because it can go away with one bad performance."
Helias is one of six teams assigned to Class 4 District 6. Helias currently tops the district standings, followed by fourth-ranked Bolivar and Warrensburg.
"Bolivar has really been improving as a football program and Warrensburg is playing really well," Hentges said.
The top two teams in the district standings will receive a first-round bye Helias is currently open in the final week of the regular season and if it would get that bye, the potential is there for two straight weeks without a game.
"We've dealt with one open date before, but never two," Hentges said. "We're looking for someone in Week 9."
But that's four weeks away. The clash with the Bruins is foremost on the minds of the Crusaders.
Game time is 7 p.m.
Notes: Helias defeated Rock Bridge 27-20 last season at Ray Hentges Stadium to snap a three-game losing streak to the Bruins. The Crusaders had won the previous three meetings with the Bruins. Helias and Rock Bridge are the lone remaining undefeated teams in conference play. Rock Bridge has wins against Staley (26-24), Smith-Cotton (42-0), Jefferson City (23-21) and Capital City. Those four have a combined record of 2-14 this season. Helias has defeated Class 2 No. 4 Lutheran: St. Charles (31-20), Hickman (68-18), Class 5 No. 6 Battle (41-19) and Borgia, which is receiving votes in Class 3. Those teams are a combined 8-6. This is the last of a three-game homestand for Helias, who will travel down Stadium Boulevard the next two Friday nights to Adkins Stadium for first-ever meetings with Capital City and Jefferson City.