Strength vs. strength when Hawks, Cyclones meet on gridiron

Running the ball, stopping the run big keys in playoff opener

South Hamilton quarterback Marco Balderas is coming off a two-TD performance last week. DFJ photo/Tracy Runneberg

JEWELL — Old-school, smash mouth football, a return to the days before the pass-happy spread attack became the norm.

All that will be missing is the frozen tundra, although it will be close with temperatures expected to dip into the 30’s.

That’s what fans have to look forward to when sixth-ranked Denver (8-1) hosts 10th-ranked South Hamilton (8-1) in a Class 1A state playoffs first-round game tonight at 7 p.m.

The Hawks and Cyclones both rank in the top five in the class in rushing yards, and both possess a stingy defense that has the ability to make opposing ground attacks grind to a halt.

“It’s going to be a great environment and good old-fashioned football,” South Hamilton head coach Corey Klemp said.

South Hamilton’s Mateo Balderas takes off with the ball after scooping up a fumble against Eagle Grove last Friday night in Jewell. DFJ photo/Tracy Runneberg

Klemp is a graduate of Denver High School, a fact he wanted to downplay as much as possible in the days leading up to the clash. That was decades ago, he said, and has no bearing on the match-up.

South Hamilton enters the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and it had to win five consecutive games to close out the regular season just to get there. The Hawks tied the program’s record for the best regular season and they see Denver as just another opponent.

They’re confident and they’re hungry — a perfect combination against a Cyclones team that is considered the favorite.

“We’re extremely pumped for this because we haven’t been (to the playoffs) in quite a while,” South Hamilton senior Wes Wynkoop said. “We love to show people that we’re not afraid of anyone.”

The fiercest battles will likely come at the line of scrimmage as both teams attempt to exert their will. South Hamilton’s 2,591 yards rushing ranks fourth in the class, one spot ahead of Denver and its 2,572 yards.

Both teams have been equally impressive against the run. Over the last five weeks, the Hawks have allowed just 56 yards per game. The Cyclones, who are in the playoffs for the 14th time overall and fourth straight year, give up just 89.2 yards per game and have shutout their last four opponents and five foes in all.

Denver’s defense is ranked third in the state in points allowed at 7.6 per game. South Hamilton sits ninth at 14.2 points per game allowed.

“They’re a really solid team with a good defense,” Logan Klemp, South Hamilton’s leading rusher and all-state linebacker said. “But our offensive line has been amazing and we’re just going to pound it on the ground. Defensively, we’ve been playing really well, so we have confidence there.”

Denver will have Logan Klemp in its crosshairs, that’s a given. The Division I prospect has rushed for 1,145 yards and 12 touchdowns. A week ago, with a spot in the playoffs on the line, Klemp carried the ball on 43 of South Hamilton’s 59 plays in a 21-7 win over Eagle Grove.

But the Hawks aren’t a one-man show. Fellow running back DJ Klonglan has 739 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, and fullback Grant Evans has reached the end zone four times.

“I hope they do key on just one of them because that will certainly play into our hands,” Corey Klemp said. “We’re more than capable of not just running (all three backs), but we’re also capable of throwing when we need to.”

Hawks’ quarterback Marco Balderas has shown steady improvement throughout the season. He completes 60 percent of his passes and has tossed three TD’s, two of them a week ago.

Stopping the opposing quarterback, Denver’s Sam Joerger, will be a necessity if South Hamilton is to advance. He is one of two Cyclone backs to have surpassed 1,000 yards rushing this season. Joerger has 1,095 yards, while Bo McMahon has 1,056, and both average better than 8 yards per carry.

Joerger and McMahon have combined for 31 touchdowns on the ground. Through the air, Joerger has passed for 392 more yards and a pair of scores.

“Denver does their unique things and I’ve been real impressed with them on film,” Corey Klemp said. “The quarterback is especially a real threat running and then you have to respect the pass. So it will definitely be a challenge, but we’ll be ready.”

Hawks’ junior defensive lineman Teagan Risetter doesn’t think his team has to do anything special. If South Hamilton can treat it as just another game against a good opponent, it should be fine.

“I think we just have to do our jobs,” Risetter said. “They have a pretty good running game from what I’ve seen on film, but if we play together then we should be fine.”

Class 1A First Round Games

Tonight, 7 p.m.

IKM-Manning (7-2) at West Lyon (9-0).

Western Christian (7-2) at AHSTW (8-1).

Belmond-Klemme (7-2) at Van Meter (9-0).

South Hamilton (8-1) at Denver (8-1).

South Winneshiek (6-3) at Iowa City Regina (7-2).

Wilton (8-1) at Bellevue (8-1).

Sigourney-Keota (5-4) at Pella Christian (9-0).

Pleasantville (7-2) at West Branch (9-0).