Circumstances rarely exist to allow two returning state runners-up to meet in the next year’s title game.
Yet, Platte County (12-1) and Jackson (13-0) match up in this weekend’s Class 5 Show-Me Bowl scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Helias High School’s Ray Hentges Stadium in Jefferson City, Mo. Platte County lost to Webb City 48-0 in last year’s Class 4 title game, while Jackson fell 27-21 in overtime to Carthage the following day in the Class 5 championship game.
Both teams have earned a shot at redemption.
“Jackson’s tough. I’ve seen them on film from last year, so I’ve seen that, but they’re a great team,” said Utz, who guided the Pirates to a seventh playoff trip in his 13th season at the helm with three state semifinal showings in the past four years and now back-to-back championship game appearances.
This will predictably be the first matchup between the two teams with Jackson located just northwest of Cape Girardeau. The Indians have become a Class 5 powerhouse under the direction of veteran coach Brent Eckley and his innovative spread offense.
Jackson has reached the playoffs four times in Eckley’s eight seasons, and he has accrued a record of 83-22 as he nears 200 career wins (currently 184). He previously spent time at Warrensburg, Montgomery County and Union in his first 13 years as a head coach before landing his current job.
Eckley’s quarterbacks have included Eric Czerniewski during a record-setting career that included a Class 2 Show-Me Bowl appearance before moving on to become the 2010 Division II player of the year and 2010 Harlon Hill Winner at Central Missouri. Jordan Webb played quarterback for Eckley at Union before going on to a college career that included stints as a starter for both Colorado and Kansas.
Jackson senior quarterback Cael Welker has amassed more than 8,000 passing yards in three years as a starter, and he has completed 134 of 188 passes for 2,346 yards this season while throwing 36 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He missed the Indians’ 71-0 win over Sikeston for a violation of team rules, according to reports.
The production sits just a tick off of Welker’s 2019 season when he threw for 2,976 yards and 41 touchdowns with five interceptions.
While Eckley runs a shotgun spread with plenty of passing capabilities, the run game remains a prominent part of the offense. Jackson averages about 210 rushing yards per game with, and Welker has accounted for nearly 2,000 yards on the ground and 14 rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons.
Jackson senior running back Daniel Dickerson leads the team in rushing at 1,038 yards at an average of 9.1 yards per carry with 19 touchdowns. The Indians also have three capable wide receivers in the diverse offense with junior Kannen Turley at team-highs of 59 catches for 1,176 yards and 17 touchdowns. His season-highs were 12 catches for 180 yards in a win over Class 3 state semifinalist Cardinal Ritter.
Rhet Liley, a senior ranks second with 30 catches and 521 yards to go with nine scores, while sophomore Marquis Eckley has 11 touchdown receptions and 28 catches for 438 yards in just 11 games played.
Jackson has yet to score fewer than 49 points per game but will be preparing for a defensive unit that has shined all season for Platte County. In fact, the Pirates’ worst defensive showing came when they allowed 28 first-half points to Grain Valley in a Class 5 quarterfinal before shutting the Eagles out in the second half of a comeback win. North Kansas City scored 28 points on defensive and special teams touchdowns in a 42-37 upset victory over the Pirates in Week 4.
“Obviously, they’re putting up big scores, and we’re going to come in and give them everything we’ve got,” said Utz, who earned his 100th win at Platte County in Week 5 against Smithville and now has a record of 108-49 with the Pirates and 134-104 overall including stints at Stewartsville and Mid-Buchanan.
Platte County allows just over 115 yards per game passing with only 10 touchdowns surrendered through the air. Only three opponents managed more than 200 yards passing with Smithville’s 238 the season-high for an opponent in the offense that most closely resembles Jackson’s mode of operation. The Pirates defeated Smithville — a Class 4 semifinalist — 28-7.
The key to Platte County’s pass defense continues to be a diverse pass rush with eight players having at least four sacks. Trevor Scott, a junior linebacker, leads the way with 9½ ahead of a crowded group that includes defensive tackle Alex Stearns (7), sophomore defensive end Chandavian Bradley (6), senior defensive end Forrest Boynton (5½), senior safety Luke Filger (5), junior linebacker Blaine Keuhn (4½), junior defensive end Jaydon Walls (4½) and senior defensive tackle Keaton Smith.
Platte County’s secondary will be tested with sophomore Garrett Smith (team-high three interceptions) and junior Landon Fulk at cornerback. Fulk replaced senior Spencer Cupp following a season-ending knee injury suffered on the opening kickoff of the second half against Grain Valley.
Cupp had a pair of interceptions late in the season, and Platte County junior safety Cade Fowler, sophomore dime back Cameron Wolfe, senior reserve safety Tae Bailey and Filger all also have two picks this year.
Stearns (54 tackles, nine for loss; two forced fumbles) and Smith (50 tackles, four sacks) anchor the run defense while Scott (team-high 83 tackles, eight for loss) and Keuhn (69 tackles, 13 for loss) provide the athletic playmakers at the next level. However, the Pirates will face an imposing offensive line with an average height of 6-foot-3 and weight of 257 pounds. Connor Tollison, a 6-5, 300-pound senior committed to Missouri, leads one of the best units in the state.
Platte County enters off of holding Webb City’s notoriously and frustratingly effective run game to just 11 yards on the ground in the second half of a 24-21 semifinal win. That meant a 51-point turnaround from last year’s result against the same team in the Class 4 Show-Me Bowl.
“Most of the guys returning (on our team) know how it feels to get absolutely destroyed in the state finals,” Scott said. “They saw this game (at Webb City) and said, ‘We ain’t losing 48-0 again,’ came out here won this game, and I’m sure we’ll have the same mentality (this week) to win a state championship.”
However, Jackson’s defense might be just as notable, if not overshadowed by the gaudy offensive numbers. The Indians — champions of Class 5 District 1 — have posted three shutouts, and the most points allowed came in a 56-32 win over Cardinal Ritter, a 63-22 quarterfinal win over Chaminade and a 59-21 win over Class 6 semifinalist Fox, which lost 13-0 to eventual state runnerup and 2019 state champion DeSmet.
The passing game for Platte County will be the focal point for the Jackson defense.
Platte County senior quarterback Chris Ruhnke enters having led comeback wins in three of four postseason games (Class 5 District 8 semifinal vs. North Kansas City, quarterfinal vs. Grain Valley and semifinal vs. Webb City), while becoming the program’s all-time leading passer in terms of yards. In 13 games this season, he has 2,922 passing yards — just three shy of his 2019 total in 15 games — and the 28 passing touchdowns also bettered the total from his first year as starter. He now has 52 in his career, having passed Brandon Gutshall (50, 1998-2000) for second on the program’s all-time career list with three against Webb City to move within seven of Justin Mitchell’s career record of 59 set from 2014-2016.
In 2019, Ruhnke only completed touchdown passes to three different receivers, but six have found the end zone through the air this season — senior wide receiver Dayton Mitchell (eight), senior wide receiver Colby Rollins (seven), senior wide receiver Joey Schultz (seven), sophomore wide receiver Carter Salzman (three), junior wide receiver Cole Rhoden (two) and junior reserve running back Ben McDaniel (one).
“I don’t think they’ve played anyone to our offensive caliber. I don’t think their defense is ready for it,” Rollins said. “We’ve got the best (receiving) corps in the state.”
Platte County senior running back Cayden Davis needs just 22 yards on the ground for a second straight 1,000-yard season, having led the Pirates in rushing in all 13 games this season. He’s gone for at least 70 yards eight times behind an offensive line that’s used seven different starting combinations this season with only senior Trey Butcher and junior Joe Nicholson having started every game.