Steve Keefer insists he made only two major decisions when he took over at midseason as head football coach at Bishop Luers High School.
Both decisions factored into the Knights' run to the Class 2A state title game for the fourth consecutive season. Both decisions will play a role when fifth-ranked Luers (10-4) takes on No.1 Indianapolis Ritter (14-0) at 7 p.m. Friday in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Decision No.1: Luers would turn into a muscle-oriented offense that says “We're running. Try to stop us.”
Decision No.2: Luers junior Quinn Cook would be the team's quarterback.
“It goes back to offensive philosophy,” Keefer said. “We have four senior tailbacks and any of them would be starting on any other team. They're legitimate, premier runners.”
Notre Dame recruit Jaylon Smith is the starter, and his senior classmates are Tyvel Jemison, Charles Gaston and Jaquale Cooper. Each scored a touchdown in Luers' 35-21 semistate win at Andrean.
“If we take Jaylon out, we move Tyvel in or Chuck or Coop, and those kids don't lose much,” Keefer said. “Our philosophy is we have a big, strong offensive line and we're going to pound the ball at you. And these guys can take it 60, 70, 80 yards on any play.”
Smith didn't run the ball as much earlier in the season, concentrating on his defensive role at linebacker and maintaining fresh legs. But Keefer and offensive coordinator Kyle Lindsay have increased Smith's carries of late, and Smith has been punishing defenses. His style opens things up for the quick, elusive trio behind him.
Smith leads Luers with 1,115 yards, followed by Jemison and Gaston (517 yards apiece) and Cooper (307 yards).
“As the season progressed, coach came up to me and said he was going to ride me (at running back),” Smith said. “He said that would be best for the team and I was all for it.”
Keefer doesn't mind the fact Luers isn't necessarily looking for balance between the run and the pass.
“We've got great receivers in (Matt) Williamson and (Michael) Rogers, and we try to get the ball to them as much as we can,” Keefer said. “But we have to stay true to our philosophy.”
The run-first philosophy also ties into Keefer's other decision to go with Cook at quarterback over freshman Noah Wezensky.
Quarterback was a question mark coming into the season after the graduation loss of long-time starter James Knapke. The Knights alternated between Cook and Wezensky until shortly after Keefer took over for fired coach Matt Lindsay.
“Both of them bring a lot to the table,” Keefer said. “The biggest thing I saw was pure strength. As a freshman, 14 years old, playing the varsity game, Noah has the tools. As he develops in the weight room and becomes a little stronger, it'll be a different prospect. Quinn brought that (strength), plus a little more experience.”
Both quarterbacks are capable of throwing the ball well, and Cook burned Andrean with a play-action, 30-yard touchdown pass to Rogers for Luers' first score last Friday. The threat of the pass lurks in the background, even as the emphasis on the run remains in the forefront.
“The key is to take advantage of what the defense gives you,” Keefer said.
Ritter, meanwhile, is a pass-first team that wants to strike quick and often. The Raiders have scored at least 48 points in each of their playoff games.
Ritter coach Ty Hunt said his team will be prepared for Luers' attempts to control the ball, and the clock, with their more deliberate, ground-oriented offense.
This won't be the first time an opponent has entered the game wanting to gain control via the ground game, Hunt said.
“The first one that stands out in my mind is Bishop Chatard,” Hunt said. “They're ground-and-pound and they're in the 3A state championship and we were able to get some things accomplished against them. They have great size across the board and we still did some good things.”
Ritter beat Chatard 56-33 on Sept. 14. Hunt said Class A finalist Indianapolis Scecina tried the same run-first approach and Ritter won that game 36-18.
Luers' seniors will try to end their careers with a fourth state title.
“They're undefeated in the playoffs since their freshman year and we're going to try to keep that going,” Cook said. “We really want to win another state title for them and keep it going.”
It's safe to say Luers will make a strong run at that fourth title, literally and figuratively.