By VINCE PELUSO
In football, and life in general, there aren’t many second chances.
But, coach Tim Willis and his Madison Blue Streaks will get just that this Friday when they travel to South for a Division II Region 3 quarterfinal.
Willis’ sixth-seed Blue Streaks, co-champions of the Premier Athletic Conference, fell at South, 48-24, in Week 7.
“We always say in life, it’s not too often to you get a second chance and we get a second chance (this week),” Willis said. “We’re excited to go over there and we gave up 48 points that night and the kids are not too happy about that. They want to show people that night was a fluke and we are a better football team.
“We’re getting our second opportunity, the kids believe they can win. They sure are practicing like they want to win. It’s going to be a good football game.”
To say things took a turn for the better for Madison since the loss to the South, would be a bit of an understatement.
The Blue Streaks (8-2, 6-1) have rattled off three-consecutive wins, not allowing an opponent to cross the goaline as they have outscored Geneva, Lakeside and Riverside, in succession, 95-0.
“Well I think No.1 difference has been we adjusted our inside and outside linebackers after that game; we made some adjustments to our personnel,” Willis said of the difference since the loss to South (8-2). “I think we have people in better positions as far as what they’re doing. So that’s a big part of it defensively. Offensively, we’ve just been able to control the ball more. We’re not making mistakes and not beating ourselves.
“On offense, we’ve told the kids, we gotta end every drive with a kick. Punting the ball isn’t a bad thing opposed to a turnover. It’s been a lot of little things like that.”
Madison certainly executed all of those things to perfection this past week in storming past Riverside, 28-0.
“Well, I think No. 1 (reason Madison dominated the game) is that we played very well in all three phases of the game,” he said. “Again, the old cliché goes, ‘you gotta play well in all three phases of the game to win.’ We controlled the ball on offense, played very good on defense and the special teams were solid.
“We look at it that way and you win games when you do that.”
Conversely, that didn’t happen the first time Madison squared off with South.
“You look at the South film, we had six turnovers, didn’t play good defense and didn’t play well on special teams,” he recalled. “We’re a totally different team than the first time.”
Many of the principles that Madison used to beat Riverside should also apply to its contest with the Rebels.
The Blue Streaks will likely want to keep the potent South offense, which is averaging 35.3 points per game, off the field, much like it did against the Beavers in Week 10.
Additionally, Willis said his defense needs to match the pace of the fast, no-huddle Rebels offense.
“When you play teams that have uptempo offenses and don’t huddle, you need a defense that can play fast and you have to simplify a lot of things,” he said. “Your defense needs to get lined up and in the correct places. I think we’ve gotten a lot better with that over the last three weeks. The best thing we did when we got beat is we simplified our defense. That made us a better football team.
“We need to lineup correctly, don’t get out-leveraged, they run the ball 60 to 75 percent of the time. We need to be ready for that.”
While Madison is playing to make a run through the playoffs, the Blue Streaks are also playing for something else — injured teammate Ben Bruening.
Bruening’s senior season at Madison came to an end when he injured his C-1 vertebra on a helmet to helmet collision in Week 9 against Lakeside.
Willis expects the momentum gained from the emotional win over the Beavers, a game in which Bruening spoke before kickoff and came out to watch the conclusion of the game, to carry over to this Friday’s game.
“I think we’re going to carry that same momentum into this week against South,” he said. “I think Ben’s going to be at our game and these kids are playing for Ben right now. A kid like that, who can’t do it and you have ability to do it, it puts things in perspective of what you can and can’t do.
“It’s an example of why you should play every down like it’s your last.”
Willis said he doesn’t think he’s ever been a part of a team playing so much for just one player.
“Not in recent history, that I can remember,” he said. “The best thing about Ben is he’s such a respected kid. He’s No. 1 in his class at school, an extremely hard worker in sports. Everyone just has so much respect for the kid and that’s another thing that adds to this whole thing.”
Willis said games like this one and Riverside are the reason his players put in so much work.
“We always tell our kids, ‘why do you play football? You’re doing things at 6 a.m. and working your butt off all year round, why do you do it?’” Willis said. “That’s why you do it, games like these. I always tell our kids, ‘these are the games you’ll remember the rest of your life. You’re not going to remember what you got on your math test.’ Not that the math test isn’t important, but these are special moments in life that you’re going to remember.
“You’re not going to remember all the games, but you’re going to remember these games.”
While Friday certainly will be memorable regardless of the outcome, Willis knows what his team will have done if that memory is a positive one.
“Well, No. 1 won’t turn the ball over, having six turnovers last time was big, so not turning the football over is important,” he said. “No. 2, we will have played a little better defense. Not giving up the big play is important, we gave up too many last time so we need to focus more on giving up less big plays.
“Finally, I think we’ll have played better special teams. Field position is a key to special teams and field position will be big on Friday. We’re two teams that know each other very well. The team that doesn’t make mistakes and does the little things correctly will win.”