CEDAR RAPIDS — Fast, fun and the furious.
No, we aren’t talking about the next action-movie sequel with Vin Diesel.
This is more about a relentless defensive scheme that produces plenty of collisions and explosiveness. This is the brand Cedar Rapids Kennedy prefers and has displayed to wreak havoc on opponents.
“It’s a style of defense the kids like to play,” Kennedy Coach Brian White said. “They like to be aggressive and blitz.”
The fifth-ranked Cougars’ defense will attempt to slow down perennial power West Des Moines Dowling in a Class 4A state football semifinal game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, beginning at 7 p.m.
No. 2 Dowling (10-1) has won the last six championships. Kennedy (10-1) makes its second semifinal appearance in the last five seasons and third in school history.
The defense has been a key component this year.
“I feel like we’ve definitely had a big jump from last year,” Kennedy senior linebacker Jay Oostendorp said. “We returned a whole lot of guys from last year. Basically, our whole thing is just flying to the ball and having 11 hats on the ball at the end of the play.”
White has the personnel for the attacking type of football that lives on the opposition’s side of the line of scrimmage. The Cougars lead 4A with 122 tackles for loss and about 40 sacks this season.
“It’s a risk-reward defense,” White said. “You take a lot of risk, sending a lot of guys into that backfield.
“We angle, so we’re constantly trying to get penetration into the backfield.”
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The pin-your-ears-back and hunt-down-the-ball approach has allowed just 228 yards per game. Foes managed just 121 yards per game on the ground and 107 through the air. Regardless of the down or situation, you can bet they will bring pressure.
“It’s a risk-reward defense,” White said. “You take a lot of risk, sending a lot of guys into that backfield.”
They will give up some big gains, but the tackles for loss are more common.
Oostendorp sits atop 4A with 24 solo tackles for loss. Nolan Jacobs is third with 21 and all-state linebacker Cade Parker gives them three in the top 10 with 17. Oostendorp is third in the class with nine sacks as well.
Make no mistake. This is a unit that prides itself on gang-tackling and contact.
“We like to think of ourselves as kind of crazed and loving to hit somebody,” Oostendorp said. “The whole thing about defense is getting 11 crazy guys that love to hit and fly around to go make plays.”
White said quickness is more important than bulk in the defensive makeup. Defenders have to have the right mentality. He wants to see enthusiasm, toughness and being physical.
These are players White refers to as “dudes.”
“You are looking for dudes,” White said. “A dude doesn’t have a specific size and sometimes a dude doesn’t even have a specific speed. A dude is a guy that if you’re going to a big brawl in an alley you want him next to you. We’ve got some kids like that and want to get after it.”
The distinction isn’t bestowed on the talented linemen and linebackers. The secondary and hybrids — players who serve as a blend of linebacker and defensive back — are usually isolated in pass defense.
White praised Brandtley Koske and Makhi Harris for their coverage when passes do get free. The Cougars have forced 20 turnovers, including eight interceptions. Koske has five.
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“We’re incredibly fortunate that Brandtley Koske and Makhi Harris are at corner for us,” White said. “I can roll the dice because I know we’ve got some pretty good defensive backs back there. Those two have started every game for the last two years.
“Two kids who hardly get any credit and have had such an outstanding year are C.J. Currie and Isaac Scott. They are our hybrids. That is the hardest position to play in our defense. They’re both very smart kids and that helps.”
Dowling provides one of the toughest challenges of the year. The Maroons have dominated the 4A playoff field in recent years, beating Kennedy in the 2015 title game.
Running back Gavin Williams, an Iowa commit who played previously at Southeast Polk, has rushed for 982 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 9.4 yards per carry. Dowling has 3,200 rushing yards, which is good for fourth in 4A but still behind class leader Kennedy’s 3,640.
Dowling's defense has only given up 21 points in its last three games. Kennedy will be the only 4A team to play each of the other three semifinal teams this season.
“We’re not in uncharted territory,” White said. “We’ve played the two other semifinal teams. We’re fine. We’re not in awe of what is happening. They’re a very good football team and we respect the heck out of them, but we’re not going to get off the bus defeated.”
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