A look at Saturday's Class 2A playoff game between EPG and GCMS

    Playing with house money is a saying that can fit in with El Paso-Gridley’s football team these days. The Titans are still chugging along in the playoffs, reaching the quarterfinal round in Class 2A.
    There are those who would have bet that EPG wouldn’t be around for Saturday’s game at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. Heck, there are those who probably felt the Titans wouldn’t even make the playoffs after starting out the season 2-4 through the first six weeks.
    But here they are, ready to do battle in a 2 p.m. quarterfinal game at GCMS. And, the Titans aren’t the same team that got whipped by the Falcons 45-18 in Week 3.
    “We’re pretty excited to be at this point,” said EPG head coach Stephen Rigsby. “We played them early in the year and we feel like we’ve grown a little bit since then. We’ve definitely gotten better on the defensive side of the ball, that’s really been the biggest key for the turnaround.”
    EPG has gotten a lot better. The Titans have won five in a row, including road victories at Eureka in Week 9 to make the playoffs, and at Rockridge in the opening round.
    A lot of the improvement in the Titans have come on defense. Defensive coordinator Justin Oertle has been able to get his squad to play at a high level.
    “We’ve changed some personnel changes, one of our backup running backs moved in to play defensive line; we’re healthier in our linebacking corps than the last time we’ve played,” Rigsby said.
    As good as the defense has been, EPG has still allowed 71 points in its last three games against some pretty good offenses. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley has a very good offense.
    It starts with the quarterback, junior Nathan Garard. He has been able to direct an attack that is pushing 500 points this season. He thrown for 859 yards and 13 touchdowns.
    “He’s grown leaps and bounds. It helps having 6-foot-4 Ryland Holt, 6-3 Bryce Barnes to throw to,” said GCMS head coach Mike Allen of his signal-caller. “The thing is, we’ve started running him a little more; he’s a dual threat able to run the ball and to throw it.”
    The biggest threats, though, are running backs Mitch McNutt and Jarad Trantina. The two have combined for 2,063 yards and 41 touchdowns.
    “McNutt is an all-state kid and the Trantina kid is not far behind,” Rigsby said. “Pair them up with the ‘skyscraper’ receivers makes things pretty darn difficult. They have a bunch of weapons. It makes it difficult. The biggest key for us will be to line up correctly.”
    Offensive success happens because of the play up front. Blocking has been the key for McNutt rushing for 1,344 yards and 27 TDs, and Trantina adding to the attack.
    “Our line has done a phenomenal job opening up holes for Mitch and Jarad, and they’re great backs to block for each other,” Allen said.
    But EPG’s defense has been solid.
    “Their defense has stood out on film. They’re flying to the ball, being very aggressive,” Allen said of the Titans. “To see where they are now to then is remarkable. They’ve had some guys who have stepped up.”
    El Paso-Gridley has also provided a little pop in its attack. Ryne Faulk has rushed for 1.595 yards and 19 touchdowns.
    “Offensively, we made some changes to play a little more power football and it’s helping us out not only the offensive side of the ball but on the defensive side of the ball,” Rigsby said. “We’ve put together some six-, seven- and even nine-minute drives the past couple of weeks.”
    That’s because quarterback Jarrin Landrus has been key in directing the offense. He has thrown for 1,374 yards and 17 TDs.
    “We expect to see a lot of Faulk getting the ball. He’s a great football player so we have to try to contain him,” Allen said. “Their quarterback can throw the ball all over the field.”
    Faulk and Lukas Kiefer are the two main receivers with 421 and 410 yards, respectively, in a combined virtually equal 59 receptions. They have 10 of the TDs.
    “They’re fast and physical,” Rigsby said of the GCMS defense. “What’s really scary about how they play is they can mold into a lot of different styles. They can bounce into a couple of things and …  they don’t have to change personnel to do that, so we’ll have our hands full.”
    The Falcons have yielded a mere 66 points all season. EPG’s 18 points in Week 3 is the most GCMS has given up in any game this season.
    The biggest key might be the first quarter, according to Rigsby. The Titans have outscored their opponents 100-40 in the opening frame.
    “We talk to our kids about how important that first quarter is going to be for us as far as not turning the ball over and doing some things to keep us close,” Rigsby said.
    This game, like virtually all the others at this time of year, should boil down to turnovers and penalties. Neither team can afford to give the other more opportunities.
    The winner will play in the semifinal round at home against the winner of the Newman Catholic-Orion contest at Sterling. For Newman Catholic, it is its third home game. For Orion, it’s the first road contest. GCMS is a higher seed with one road game while the Titans have been on the road twice.