It is a pivotal matchup and one team may be without its most pivotal player.
Sky Bernston, Dayton’s star running back and Northern Division I-A’s leading rusher, was injured last week and his status is unknown for today’s homecoming showdown against Fallon at the Edward Arciniega Complex.
Both teams come into today’s 7 p.m. game with 3-0 league records, tied with Elko for the top spot.
“We’re preparing for him,” Fallon coach Brooke Hill said of Bernston. “They are a good football team … and presents challenges.”
Fallon, though, has its stable of backs and also welcomes back linebacker Evan Bitter from injury. Hill said Bitter will play in a limited role after the junior suffered a vicious concussion in a 7-on-7 passing tournament at Douglas in July.
Arguably Fallon’s best defender, Bitter and fellow linebacker Riley Williams collided and knocked heads leaving Bitter out for the past two months. Now Bitter’s cleared to play, Hill said he will bring along his outside linebacker slowly.
In addition to Bitter, Fallon also welcomed back Cameron Matzen last week against South Tahoe. Tyler Bagby, who injured his ankle against Wooster, may return today, but Hill said it’s more likely Bagby will not play until next week at Elko.
“We are getting some guys back,” Hill said. “We are going slow with him (Bitter) and not throwing him into the fire. We want to do what’s best for the kid. Once he can turn it loose and become Evan, then we know we’re good to go.”
While Bitter’s return may provide an additional boost, not that one is needed as a pair of first-place teams lock horns on Fallon’s homecoming, the Greenwave are riding their own string of legs.
Nathan Heck, Charles Fulks and Trae Workman have become the identity of the offense, muscling through defense and leaving opponents in their wake.
Fallon averages 266.5 yards on the ground per game, while Heck, the league’s second-leading rusher, has racked up 458 yards and five touchdowns.
Fulks, meanwhile, has piled up 287 yards on 37 carries and four TDs and Workman has added 110 yards and a pair of TDs on only eight carries.
The trio have led the Wave’s attack providing an ability to keep the chains moving plus breaking out the big play.
“We expect to run the football, but it may not be as easy as it has been,” Hill said. “Hopefully, we match up a little better with that kind of game than in the past few years. If we have to throw it, we’ll throw it.”
Last week, Fallon focused more on its passing game to work on timing and flow of its aerial attack. Quarterback Joe Pyle completed 7 of 14 passes for 75 yards and two TDs, but was unable to throw more as the Wave routed South Tahoe.
“We take what the defense gives us,” Hill said. “A lot of teams are focused on stopping our passing game. If they put more men in the box then we got to be able to sling it.”
Defensively, though, Fallon must contain Dayton’s power run game. The Dust Devils churn out 331.5 rushing yards per game and 203 of those yards come courtesy of Berntson.
Whether he plays or not, Dayton will also rely on Quinn Santana (41 carries, 245 yards, 3 TDs) and John Aguilar (32 carries, 168 yards, two TDs).
“They are a pretty physical defensive team,” Hill said. “This will be a team that will try to grind it out on us.”
The Dust Devils are not much of a threat in the passing game as quarterback Davis Winebarger is 14 of 29 for 260 yards and three TDs in four games.
Regardless of Dayton’s ability to throw the ball, Hill and his team are focused on stopping the run to force the Dust Devils to throw the ball.
“They are a power run team and keep the ball away from us,” Hill said. “That’s the recipe of Faith Lutheran last year and Lowry. In the past, that has given us some problems, so we have to find a way to get the ball back.”