Regina celebrates against Pella Christian. Jeff Yoder/For Your Prep Sports. Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
Another season, another trip to the UNI-Dome for Regina.
The next step for the Regals on its path to a seventh consecutive state title is to return to the state title game.
Standing in the way of another championship game appearance is a team with its own recent semifinal experience.
Top-ranked Regina (10-1) will face No. 3 Denver (11-0) in the Class 1A semifinals on Saturday at 10:06 a.m. in the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
While six-time defending champ Regina has 12 straight wins in the dome during its current 32-game postseason winning streak Denver has lost in the Class A semifinals each of the past two seasons.
Here are five things to keep an eye on Saturday as Regina attempts to keep its title streak alive.
Strength vs. Strength
It is a matchup of strengths, literally as this game should be determined by the big guys in the trenches as one of the best running teams in 1A meets one of the best in the business at stopping the run.
Led by an offensive line that averages 296 pounds per starter, Denver ranks third in 1A averaging 345 rushing yards per game.
The Cyclones are averaging 7.1 yards per carry and have rushed for more than 300 yards in nine straight games.
Regina counters with a stout run defense anchored by one of the best defensive tackles in the state in senior Jared Brinkman (6-2, 270).
Brinkman is almost immovable upfront and leads Regina with 59.5 tackles from his defensive tackle spot.
Behind the play of Brinkman and fellow senior defensive tackle Reagan Ries (38 tackles) the Regals have held seven straight opponents under 200 yards rushing and are allowing 138 yards per game on the ground.
“This is the first time this year I’m going to go up against someone that is bigger than me,” Ries said. “I like it, it’s going to be a test and hopefully we can show that we are stronger and we are able to control the line. It’s going to be tough.”
Rise and Shine
After 11 straight weeks of evening kickoffs Saturday’s 10:06 a.m. kickoff comes with an early wakeup call.
Both teams are used to the morning football routine.
In its seventh consecutive semifinal appearance Regina has the early morning schedule down to a science while Denver played in the early timeslot in the Class A semifinals each of the past two seasons.
Still avoiding a slow start could be critical for both teams on the big stage.
“I think the routine helps, just the fact our kids have done it, we know it’s going to be an early morning,” Regina coach Marv Cook said. “Our kids lift at 6 in the morning during the week and I always feel kind of bad for them because they have to get up so early and get their day started but on days like this it makes me so happy we do.”
Regina has been impressive on both offense and defense in playoff wins over West Branch and second-ranked Pella Christian.
Impressive but not perfect.
Regina has committed 17 penalties for 150 yards in two playoff wins, including 10 for 85 yards last week against Pella Christian.
“We have a lot of stuff that we need to clean up,” Ries said. “We have a lot to work on this week but are going to keep getting better.”
Nearly all of the attention given to the Denver offense is on the running game and that’s exactly the way the Cyclones like it.
Denver has run the ball on 85 percent of its offensive plays this season, its 536 rush attempts the most in Class 1A.
That doesn’t mean the Cyclones can’t throw the ball.
Senior quarterback Eli Barrett has completed 61 percent of his passes for 537 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Nearly half of his completions have gone to Zach Miller, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior with 21 catches for 255 yards and four touchdowns.
Miller has touchdown grabs of 43, 38, 20 and 10 yards in a passing game that often catches opponents napping.
“It’s like the old Oklahoma or Nebraska teams where they pound you and pound you and pound you and then they slip a guy out and it’s a touchdown,” Cook said. “You have to play assignment football and make sure you have guys covered up and you know who the eligible are. It’s going to be a truly great challenge for us.”
Michael Conlon picked the perfect time to be playing the best football of his career.
The Regina junior quarterback threw for 167 yards and a touchdown and ran for 134 more yards and a score in last week’s win over Pella Christian.
In two playoff games Conlon has passed for 421 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 170 more yards while helping Regina average 484 yards and 47 points in two postseason wins.
On the season Conlon has passed for 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns and run for 635 yards and nine scores.
He will face perhaps his toughest test on Saturday against a Denver defense that is allowing 201 total yards and 7.9 points per game.
Denver has allowed more than seven points in a game just four times this season and hasn’t given up more than 309 yards of total offense in a game.