Two of the better offenses in Southern Illinois will face off when Nashville hosts Carterville at the Fairgrounds on Friday night.
Both teams enter with 4-1 records, but Carterville (2-0) has a one game advantage over Nashville (1-0) in the SIRR Mississippi standings. The Lions are riding a four-game win streak with back to back conference victories over Du Quoin, 28-26, and Anna-Jonesboro (35-14) last week.
Nashville has three non-conference victories with one conference win over Anna-Jonesboro (47-22) in Week 4. The Hornets have won their previous four matchups against Carterville, including a 41-27 victory last spring when Nashville’s defense held the Lions offense scoreless in the second half.
The Carterville Lions improved to 4-1 and 2-0 in the SIRR Mississippi Conference with a 35-14 road victory over Anna-Jonesboro (2-3, 0-2) on Friday night. The Lions scored a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter to make it a three score lead while the Wildcats' offense struggled to manufacture scoring drives in the second half.
“I remember our offense coming out really hot in the first half and our defense made a few stops,” said Carterville coach Brett Diel. “Then we came back out of halftime and it was a completely different game. We were playing on our heels the whole game, so we definitely have to work on putting a full game together this week.”
Nashville coach Stephen Kozuszek remembers getting big production from quarterback Cole Malawy and wide receiver Jaxon Goforth, both of whom graduated from last season. However, senior wide receiver Isaac Turner is returning and has a knack for racking up stats in his own right.
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“It’s very difficult slowing (Turner) down,” said Diel. “They do as good of a job as anybody we’ve seen in regards to manufacturing touches for their skill players. We definitely have to pay attention to who we’re lining up over.”
Nashville’s defense will have to do the same with Carterville’s playmakers; including Blake Burkey, Peyton Bittle and Townsend Barton as the offense’s go-to receiving threats. Running back Nolan Hartford is another weapon out of the backfield and surpassed the century mark in ground yards last week.
Limiting big plays is how Nashville pulled off its second half victory last spring, and Kozuszek said he’s sticking to that game plan.
“I remember us getting off to a slow start on both sides of the ball,” said Kozuszek. “Then in the second half we were able to get some big chunk yardage plays on offense as the game went on. Defensively, we were able to eliminate their big plays as the second half went on which helped us pull away from them.”
The Nashville Hornets totaled 220 rushing yards in the first quarter to defeat the Anna-Jonesboro Wildcats 47-22 on Friday night. Nashville took a 47-0 lead into halftime with a running clock and rested its starters in the final two quarters. Hornets improve to 3-1 and 1-0 in the SIRR-Mississippi Conference while the Wildcats fall to 2-2 and 0-1 in conference play.
The quarterback matchup is much different from a season ago after Malawy and Carterville’s former play caller Eli Downen graduated.
Nashville senior Kolten Gajewski will line up under center and pose a threat using his arm and legs. Carterville will lean on junior Andrew Hellreigel, who threw for a touchdown and ran for 50 yards in Anna last week.
Diel said he sees a different Nashville offense on film this season.
“I definitely think last year they were closer to a 50-50 pass-run attack,” he said on Monday. “Now they’re shading more towards the running backs this year; they are big and athletic with other good backs back there. Their power running game is going to be hard to stop.”
Nashville’s running game flows through senior Connor Gladson as the bruiser back with breakaway speed. Next to him is Ian Blazier doing what his surname suggests — blazing past defenders, and then Gajewski is more than capable of lowering his shoulder on designed quarterback options and draw plays.
Diel believes his defense will be ready for the ground attack after facing offenses like Benton, Murphysboro, Du Quoin and Anna-Jonesboro earlier in the schedule.
“I think our schedule as a whole has helped prepare us for this week,” said Diel. “We’ve seen power running already, but you mix that in with their playmakers and the fact that they’re tough to stop and very well coached.”
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Kozuszek’s offense could be forced to throw the ball more this week considering the Hornets have outscored their last three opponents 143-30, including a 54-0 road shutout against Marquette Catholic last week.
“We are probably more run-heavy than we were last year, but we are still definitely a team that likes to throw the ball,” said Kozuszek. “The past few weeks we have not needed to throw as much, as we have been able to get out to big leads early. However, we have multiple options to go to in the passing game, and Kolten has been really efficient the past few weeks in distributing the ball.”
Both coaches understand the importance of a win this week. Carterville is 2-1 on the road this season with an opportunity to hand Nashville (3-0) its first loss at home.
“Anytime you play on the road against a very good opponent you have to play clean, eliminate turnovers and limit penalties — we can’t put ourselves in long distance situations,” said Diel. “A win would definitely put us in a position to win conference.”
Kozuszek isn’t ready to count his eggs before they hatch.
“The biggest thing is to have good discipline on both sides of the ball and eliminate negative plays,” he said. “A win definitely puts us in good position in the conference, but does not guarantee anything, as we will still have two conference games remaining, including a road trip to Van Metre Field in Week 8.”