VANDALIA -- Everyone was cautiously optimistic to see how Mount Carmel would handle its first postseason game in three years. They quickly dispelled any preconceived notions of nerves with the performance they pieced together this past Saturday.
The Aces opened with as dominant of a postseason opener as you could have hoped for, handily defeating Carlinville 35-7 in a game in which juniors Kaleb Applebey (330 yards, four TDs) and Beau Stipp (160 yards, three TDs) shined. Now, they advance on, and naturally the further you advance, the tougher the opponent you'll face.
Now, they'll travel to face the Vandals of Vandalia in the second round of the IHSA 3A Football Playoffs, a group coached by Head Coach Jason Clay.
Clay's group has enjoyed an incredible season to date, boasting an unblemished 10-0 record and having defeated Carlinville -- the one common opponent between the two schools -- 48-7 in week two.
As you scout Vandalia, it appears they have a trio of primary impact players, senior running back Thomas Ritchey, senior quarterback Matthew Wells, and Wells' favorite target passing, senior wideout Gavin Davis. Each of whom will present matchup problems for the Aces.
The Vandals' offense is pretty well-balanced, with Wells and Ritchey both serving as legitimate threats both on the ground and through the air.
Wells is a dual-threat quarterback who's capable of burning you with his legs if he slips out of the pocket, but you have to respect his arm through the air. The senior field general's thrown for 1,513 yards on a decent 56 percent completion mark and 20 touchdowns on the season, but has rushed for 345 yards and eight rushing scores as well. For his career Wells sits just 10 passing yards shy of 5,000 for his career. As a sophomore Wells previously threw for 2,206 yards, which is a Vandalia school-record.
Mount Carmel's defensive backs such as senior Aden Gill, Stipp, sophomore Zach Allen, junior Caleb Norrick, among others will have to be ready to stick with their assignments against such a threat.
When Wells does throw the ball, Davis is a weapon he likes to target. He's exceeded 75 yards in a game three times this season, with his season-high 168 yards coming in week two against Carlinville.
Ritchey can both rush and receive the ball out of the backfield, having totaled 1,344 yards on the season and 25 touchdowns. He's averaging 7 yards a rush, a number the Aces' stout rush defense will look to limit. Ritchey's just the 20th Vandal in school history to exceed the 1,000 yard rushing mark in a season.
A couple of Aces who've been exceptional in the open field tackling include seniors such as Gill and Cade Newkirk. Whether it be bringing down Ritchey or containing Wells, you'll likely hear their name called frequently on Saturday.
"They seem to be balanced running, throwing and also in different guys that touch the ball," Mount Carmel Head Football Coach Michael Brewer spoke of the Vandals. "They have a lot of people who do get touches, [Ritchey]'s a good player, four receivers out there, they have a good fullback, HB that does a good job lead blocking for them. It seems they want to run it a little more than they want to throw it, which most good football teams do. [Wells] is elusive, a guy that does a good job buying time for himself. He throws the football well and we'll have our hands full there."
Defensively the Vandals pose another matchup problem.
Their defense has limited teams to just 8 points per game on the season, 80 total points on the season, with their highest total in a game allowed being 22. They're outscoring foes by an average margin of 32.3 points per game this season.
They've recorded 75 tackles for loss this season, totaling -366 yards of opposition yards, including 48 (!!) sacks as a team, an average of almost five per contest.
The Aces hope to have further success than that, but they'll likely face a similar gameplan to that of this past Saturday against Carlinville.
Based on film and statistics of Mount Carmel, Carlinville devoted heavy attention to sophomore back Zeke Hadra. Expect for Vandalia to do much of the same, shadowing Hadra out of the backfield, staying disciplined and not allowing the sophomore to get in space.
If that's the case, which it may end up being, the Aces will need a couple big encores by Applebey and Stipp, each of whom could play major factors in the game's outcome.
"Offensively, you're going to give the ball to Zeke, you're going to give the ball to our playmakers," Brewer said. "So throughout the course of the game they'll make adjustments, we'll make adjustments and you just have to kind of take what's there, you can't force a square peg in a round hole or however that goes. We'll try to take advantage of the things we feel they're giving us and they'll make adjustments throughout the game and that's just how it goes. The fun thing about football is you can't take away everything at one time."
Applebey enters the contest with 997 total passing yards in nine games, with 11 passing scores and six rushing. Despite averaging just 110.8 passing yards a contest on the season, Applebey's averaging 205.5 (and 44 yards rushing) in his past two games, including six totals touchdowns.
His progression behind center is something that's been talked about often in association with Mount Carmel football. He's looking better and better each week and If he can continue his consistency behind center, he makes the Aces a difficult out and relieves pressure from Hadra. The Aces offensive line will have to buy Applebey time however, as the Vandals defensive line will frequently bring pressure.
"We talked about Kaleb playing one of his better games of the year -- if he can continue to do that I think we just become exponentially better offensively," Brewer said. "Early on we really had to lean on Zeke a lot. This game Carlinville did a nice job up front, we strugged running the ball a little with Zeke, so what do we do? We move on to Kaleb running the ball and throwing it around a bit and we had some success doing that. Definitely getting into the playoffs you need options, you need balance to what you're doing and I think we're getting there."
Brewer cited limiting turnovers, penalties, and defensively having all 11 guys running to the football as keys to the game.
At this point the Aces should be well acclimated to oddity that is Saturday postseason kickoffs and long road trips, so that shouldn't present any problem. Weather wise, well, they'll get about the best you can ask for around mid-November. Temperatures are calling to be 53 degrees and sunny around kickoff time.
They know what they're up against. Win and advance. Against a quality opponent such as Vandalia, it should be quite a challenge and tough sledding, though it's likely to be an entertaining matchup between two teams who have every reason in the world to keep winning.
"It's playoff football and the best team's going to advance, and the team who makes the most plays is going to advance," Brewer said. "You have to make plays when you're given the opportunity to do that. If we do some of those things and not going the wrong direction then we'll be ok.
"Hopefully we can really fill that place up. We always travel well so hopefully all of the Golden Aces faithful will make the trip, be loud and it'll be a fun playoff atmosphere on Saturday."
KICKOFF: Saturday, Nov. 9; kickoff at 2 p.m. CST in Vandalia. Follow the Mount Carmel Register's Facebook page for updates throughout the contest.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Applebey vs. Vandalia's defense. If Applebey's often pressured and forced to make some errors, it could be rough night for Aces fans. If he has a clean pocket and makes accurate throws, Mount Carmel should be in good shape.
INJURIES TO MONITOR: N/A.