Marquette defensive coordinator Ryan Johnson talks with the defensive unit on Oct. 8 at Madison High School during an Explorer 48-0 win over Metro East Lutheran. The defensive front has been key to Marquette’s 5-2 overall record, not allowing a rushing touchdown in five Prairie State Conference wins.
The Marquette Catholic Explorers are still trying to get the bad taste out of their mouths from a 52-7 loss to open the Class 4A postseason in 2015.
That loss stung and it’s left a hunger for the current crop of Explorers to prove they’re better than that result. Marquette enters Week 8 with a 5-2 overall record and a 5-0 mark inside the Prairie State Conference.
For a team that defines itself in its line play on both sides of the ball, the Explorers are hungry to close out the season and make a strong playoff run wherever they land in the postseason. A win against Mount Olive at 7 p.m. Saturday at Public School Stadium will clinch a playoff spot for Marquette and move them one step closer to a PSC championship.
“I want (the playoffs) bad and if we go against Rochester again we’re going to play a better game than we did last year,” junior defensive tackle James Malone said. “We want to go to the playoffs and we want to go to state. We want to represent the seniors; that’s their goals. We just want to play in a championship and represent for Marquette.”
Malone (5-10, 250), along with the likes of Brandon Buhs (6-1, 220), Tyler Menke (6-2, 210), Alex Roberts (6-0, 200), Sam Stemm (5-9, 225) and Alex Tesson (6-2, 280) have plugged up a defensive line that has been a force in the PSC.
“The defense has played great all year,” second-year head coach Darrell Angleton said. “The last rushing touchdown we gave up was in the second quarter against Mater Dei. The front six have been tough all year.
“The trench game we’re usually winning. You saw in the first half against CM (Week 1), with a bigger team, we can hang in the trenches; we’ve just got to not do stupid things.”
Malone added, “I believe we’ll go No. 1 in the conference and I believe our No. 1 conference opponent is going to be South Fork (Week 9) and we’re going to step it up here. The defensive line is going to step it up there. We’re not going to allow any rushing touchdowns. We have no rushing touchdowns allowed (within conference) this year, so we’re going to keep it that way.”
Marquette opened with a formidable non-conference portion of the season and held its own. The Explorers lost 30-0 to Civic Memorial in Week 1 but were locked a scoreless stalemate at halftime. They then welcomed Mater Dei to Public School Stadium in Week 2 and fell 35-14, but outscored the Knights 7-6 in the second half.
Since delving into the PSC, Marquette hasn’t lost. It’s coming off a dominant, 48-0 win over Metro East Lutheran where the defense only surrendered 11 yards of total offense to the Knights.
Angleton’s single-wing offense offers a balanced attack, too. There are a lot of weapons for the Explorers on the offensive side of the ball, including junior running back D’Avion Peebles.
Peebles rushed for three TDs and threw for another one on Oct. 8 against MELHS at Madison High School.
Peebles and fellow sophomore back Treven Swingler have been a potent 1-2 punch. Peebles has 467 yards rushing and 9 TDs to go with the passing TD, while Swingler has rushed for 611 yards and 10 TDs, while throwing for another.
The two backs are close and feed off of each other, according to Peebles.
“We want to show each other love,” he said. “It’s all about family and we continue to work off of each other. (Treven) is hurt right now and much respect because he’s playing through it. He’s a good runner, finds the inside holes, cuts good and we’ll just continue to work off of one another.”
Senior quarterback Brady McAfee helps hold it all together. He’s thrown for 235 yards and a pair of TDs and rushed for 213 more yards and 3 more scores. The single wing package allots for a fair share of blocking from McAfee (6-1, 190), too.
“As quarterbacks go, he’s not afraid,” Angleton said of McAfee.
The O-line has been a blessing for the Explorers. Even injuries haven’t slowed the line.
“On the offensive side, Adam Strozewski has been out for a couple weeks and that’s one of my starting offensive linemen,” Angleton said. “Stemm, Strozewski and Marshall (Youngblood) is kind of the leader of that group that gives me lots of options.
“(Week 7) I had (Jarren) Ehlers in there, (Andrew) Angleton and (Konner) Morrissey stepping up — (Andrew) Dixon — now I’ve got my second group stepping up and we’re still moving the ball.”
Angleton pointed to strong play from sophomore Ralph Williams in Strozewski’s absence.
“He’s going to be real special,” Angleton said. “He’s 6-3, 280 and he’s got great feet for a big man. He’s a sophomore and people forget that, but he’s been a force these last couple of games.”
Throw in the threat of kicker/punter Liam Maher, and Marquette is truly balanced. Maher’s strong leg has buried three field goals this season and has coaxed Angleton into attempting them from as far as 50 yards.
One thing Angleton and his squad learned from that blowout loss to Rochester in the playoffs last year was the importance of logging at least seven wins, meaning the Explorers want to win out the last two weeks.
“It impresses upon them that 6-3 is going to get you a tough, tough draw and an away game,” Angleton said. “Whereas 7-2 you’re probably going to play another 7-2 and have a good chance of getting a home game. We’ve got some good points. Teams like Wood River have won games, so has South Fork.
“I truly think the Prairie State Conference is going to send four teams this year in the playoffs and that’s great. That hasn’t happened in a while.”