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OPINION: Huskies are underdogs, but they have a chance
The Sutter High Huskies are the decided underdog heading into tonight's inaugural CIF Northern California Regional championship game against the Marin Catholic Wildcats, and it's easy to see why.
Talk to the coaches and players, and each will tell you that the Kentfield program is by far the best they have ever faced.
The Wildcats are stocked with Division-I prospects at nearly every position on the field and have a 13-member coaching staff that knows how to utilize them.
On paper, on tape, in person, financially — any way you cut it, Marin Catholic truly is a powerhouse program — and as such, Cal-Hi Sports has the Wildcats pegged as a 17-point favorite heading into tonight's showdown.
But don't tell that to the Huskies.
They put in a solid week of practice and will enter Oroville's Harrison Stadium confident and with nothing to lose.
Sutter will have its hands full, but here are my five keys to pulling off the upset:
1. Ahlers will have to eat up yards
The wing-T offense is based on deception, and it all starts by sending your fullback up the gut to grind out the tough yardage.
If Sutter can execute the simplest of plays and Nathan Ahlers can gain 4, 5 or 6 yards a pop up the middle, it will open everything else up.
Nothing demoralizes a team more than getting punched in the mouth between the tackles, and if the Huskies can do that, they should be in good shape.
Ahlers has deceptive speed for a big back and can break off a long run when given even the smallest crease. If Sutter can bleed the Wildcats with the hard-earned yards inside, especially on first down, the rest should fall into place.
The quick-hitting dive play frees things up for halfback Mat Sanders off tackle, which in turn creates huge holes for wingback Alex Ingram on sweeps and counter plays.
And once a team has to commit to stuffing the run, it gives opportunities for quarterback Trent Little and the Huskies' play-action passing game.
To put it simply: If the Huskies are forced into third-and-longs and predictable passing situations, the game is as good as over.
2. Sutter must get a pass rush
It's simple in theory and it's so very true — quarterbacks don't like to get hit, no matter how good they are.
Bottling up 1,600-yard rusher Akili Terry is a must, but generating some sort of pressure on quarterback Jared Goff is the most important thing for Sutter.
However, it will be difficult.
Wildcats tackle Gunnar Graham is headed to Colorado next year and both of their guards are slated to play rugby at Cal.
And even when Goff has been pressured — and it hasn't been often — he's been able to shrug off would-be tacklers and make plays on the run.
The 6-foot-5 signal-caller has passed for 3,244 yards and 34 touchdowns this season, giving him 6,444 yards and 78 TD passes over the last two years.
Pressure with just the four down linemen would be nice, but look for the Huskies to dial up some blitz packages to try and create some confusion.
Sutter's front seven has been the strongest part of its defense this season, but the Huskies' secondary has come up big when challenged.
The biggest example came against Enterprise, a spread team like Marin Catholic, when the Huskies picked off four passes en route to a victory.
3. There will be adversity, it's how you handle it
I went to Sutter's practice at Yuba College on Wednesday and had a good talk with 49ers' associate head coach Tomas Rodriguez, who made a good point.
When it comes to this stage of the season, every team is good and they will make plays — it's how you handle adversity which will decide the game.
Marin Catholic has been in some dogfights this season and has battled back to win on several occasions.
The Wildcats are deeply talented and will score points, it's a no-brainer. It all depends if Sutter can regroup, make the adjustment and punch back.
4. Win the special teams
and turnover battle
Ah, the most overlooked portion of high school football — special teams.
The kick and return game could play a part in this one, especially if it's a close game where field position is crucial late.
Sutter has popped a few big ones in the return game in the past, and has even blocked a few punts. It's something they spend a lot of time practicing, too.
I have a feeling that a big play will happen in special teams, either one way or the other.
As for the turnover battle? The Huskies are taught to gang tackle and put an impetus on holding a runner up and stripping the ball out. Once again, they practice it and they excel at it.
Sutter will need to create a turnover, or two, or even three to have a fighting chance and nothing swings the momentum more than a turnover or big special teams play.
5. Homefield advantage
This game is in Sutter's backyard ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason not to show up and support the Huskies, even with the $12 price of admission for adults.
A win here firmly puts our little farming community on the map, and that goes for both Yuba and Sutter counties.
There are only a handful of teams playing in the entire state of California right now, and the Huskies will need all the community support they can get.
So bring the cowbells and get loud. It could be some time until we see a game of this magnitude again.