What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
It’s a question that is sure to bring a compelling answer on Friday when Class 6A’s top scoring offense, Northwest, meets the top scoring defense, Derby, in the second round of the playoffs at Derby.
There will so be many of the state’s best pitted against each other when Northwest has the ball. Northwest left guard Joey Gilbertson against Derby defensive lineman Peerlus Walker. Northwest running back Jahlyl Rounds against Derby linebacker Tommy Carter. It could be played as a serviceable all-star game.
But perhaps the most intrigue this matchup presents is when Northwest goes to the air, and more specifically when Derby cornerback Cooper Welch, who has allowed exactly one completed pass thrown his way this season, is covering Northwest receiver Martese Mullins, who has 925 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.
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So what happens when the cornerback nobody can throw on goes against the receiver that can get open on anybody?
“I don’t know what will happen, but I know it will be a lot of fun,” Welch said. “This is why I play the game.”
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Cooper Welch does not strike you as the typical shutdown corner.
He’s a little undersized (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) and not a brash talker, but he’s as quick as anyone on Derby’s roster and has the drive to compete with anyone.
“You see all of these guys other guys tweet about how they locked somebody down,” Derby safety Tanner Igo said. “Cooper isn’t like that. He just handles his business and it’s lockdown. He’s like the most humble kid that plays corner.”
Derby coach Brandon Clark thinks Welch gained the confidence he needed to become an elite cover corner in the summer, when teams kept throwing his way in 7-on-7 competitions. Welch kept winning the battles.
Now quarterbacks rarely throw Welch’s way. Part of that is due to the amount of pressure Derby applies with its heavy-blitz scheme, but Clark says he has no hesitation leaving Welch on an island with any receiver.
“There’s a lot of times where we call on his number for that to happen,” Clark said. “Obviously we’re not going to roll the dice too much, but he’s done a good job of locking down some of the top receivers when he’s been challenged.”
Welch said it also helps going up against receivers such as Kenyon Tabor, Michael Littleon, Lachlon Jones, and Kai Lemons every day in practice.
“We probably have one of the best receiving corps in the state,” Welch said. “Northwest has so many explosive players, but we practice against the same kind every day in practice. I think that’s really helped me this season.”
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Northwest Steve Martin has listened to some wise coaches — people he respects the most — tell him that the only way to beat Derby this season is to slow the game down to a crawl in an attempt to limit its possessions.
Martin wrestled with the idea, but felt conflicted about going against the fast-paced identity he has created at Northwest.
“We’re not going to change what we do against anybody, so we’re going to try to put the pressure on Derby,” Martin said. “We have to keep doing what we do and that’s put the pedal to the metal and try to get their defense in vanilla situations by pushing the tempo.”
It’s not a plan without risks.
“We’re gambling that our offense can move the ball against their defense because if not, then it could be a long night,” Martin said. “I just think we can’t let those guys get into their defensive checks because (defensive coordinator Cade) Armstrong is one of the very best in the business. I can’t let him get the upper hand on us, so we’re going to do what we do.”
What makes this Northwest offense so lethal (52.6 points, 547 yards) is how much speed it possesses at the skill positions.
Rounds (1,339 yards, 25 touchdowns) and Myles Garner can gash teams running the ball, then Jaxson Reynolds (36 catches for 684 yards) has emerged as a threat opposite of Mullens.
But the most dynamite of them all is Mullens, and that’s who Martin knows will need the ball on Friday.
“We’ve got to move him around and find different ways to get him touches,” Martin said. “But if they’re going to try to take him away with two-coverage, then the game is now 10 on 9 and that’s always going to go in our favor. Whenever people are playing nine against 10 against us, it usually means we’re going to be able to put up a lot of points.”
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Usually it’s the underdog — in this case Northwest — that desperately wanted the matchup.
But for the Derby defense, which listened to the Grizzlies clamor for this game in last season’s playoffs, this is the test they want.
“We’re all really excited down here in Derby because this is the game where we can finally show why we’re the No. 1 defense,” Igo said. “We definitely feel like we can hold any offense out there right now.”
When it comes to pass defense, Derby is as stingy as they come. In nine games, starting quarterbacks have combined to complete 32.2 percent (38 of 118) of their passes for a total of 425 yards — less than 50 yards per game — and two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.
For a comparison, Northwest quarterback Austin Anderson threw for 563 yards and six touchdowns in one game against Bishop Carroll.
“We’ve been telling our kids to get ready for the No. 1 offense in the state and I think they’re excited for the challenge,” Clark said.
Each side is confident that their strength will win out.
After Friday, the question will be settled: What happens when an unstoppable offense meets an immovable defense?