As the Prosser Mustangs prepare their defense for today’s State 2A high school football playoff game with East Valley, there are no secrets. There are no mathematical formulas on which to hang their fortunes, no gimmicks to think out and no nuances to interpret.
“There really isn’t a lot of mystery involved,” EV coach Adam Fisher said. “We’re going to line up and run the football and they’re going to stop us. But here’s the thing: You may know what the opponent is doing, but it’s another thing to a) slow it down, or b) stop it. If you take one thing away, whether it’s lining eight or nine guys at the line of scrimmage to stop the run, that opens up something else for us to take advantage of.”
Through 11 games, only one team has shown itself able to consistently stop the East Valley running game, and oddly enough, it was the Knights’ own offense that managed it. Or mismanaged it, turning the ball over 19 times in their five losses in the six games that started the season.
“We just were not protecting the football and that just kills you,” Fisher said. “We’ve been running the ball pretty consistently all season. But we were just killing ourselves with turnovers. I don’t keep statistics on things like that so I don’t know how many points that led to – not sure I want to know. But it kills your time of possession and it keeps you from getting into the end zone.
“We were losing games by a touchdown – at most by 10 points – and you just can’t do that.”
For the seventh game of the season, Fisher made wholesale changes, turning to a pair of sophomores in two key positions. Taylor Watkins became the starting quarterback and Adam Talley took over at tailback.
“We were turning the ball over three, four, five, six times a game and that’s something we deep-sixed overnight,” Fisher said. “The sophomores have stepped up and done the job. They take care of the football and that makes all the difference.
“I can tell you, we ruffled some feathers, but when you’re a 1-and-5 team, it’s about production. If you’re going to play, you’re expected to produce.”
At the same time, Fisher changed up his defense, shifting from a three-man defensive front line to four, shifting senior Joey Strehlou from linebacker to defensive end, where he has terrorized opposing offenses.
The turnaround has been dramatic.
Against Cheney, Talley broke loose for scoring runs of 9 and 92 yards from scrimmage, then returned the second-half kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown as the Knights earned their first Great Northern League victory of the season, 27-6.
Against West Valley, Talley had scoring romps of 5 and 31 yards and kicked field goals from 25 and 26 yards out to key a 27-14 win.
In a 28-20 win over Pullman, Talley ran 37 yards for a score and passed 19 yards for another.
East Valley traveled to Ellensburg four days later and beat the Bulldogs, 32-14, with Talley carrying 18 times for 171 yards and a touchdown while the Knights held the football for 31 of the game’s 48 minutes by running 42 times.
Last Saturday the Knights played their third game in eight days, traveling to Clarkston to post a 36-27 win over the Bantams that erased a 21-6 loss during the regular season. Talley carried the football 32 times in that game, rushing for 172 yards. In two postseason games, the sophomore ran for 343 yards on 50 carries, all within five days.
Fisher is quick to credit both Strehlou, the starting fullback, and an offensive line that has proven itself to be as deep as it is physical.
“I think we had our starting offensive line for one game this year,” the coach said. “Just the one game. We haven’t had the same offensive line together for two straight games – there’s always someone dinged up. We’ve played with three different offensive guards, three different centers and a bunch of kids at tackle. But they’ve all stepped up and done a great job. We’re not big across the line, but we are physical.”
And that, the coach insists, bodes well for the Knights against Prosser.
“I think our league was much more physical this year than (Prosser’s) league was,” he said. “We’re a stronger, more physical team than they are. They’re going to have to make some adjustments if they’re going to stop us and I’m curious about what adjustments they’re going to make. It’s going to be interesting.”
The coach has been especially pleased with the progress Talley has made since moving into the starting lineup.
“Adam has been carrying a bigger share of the load each game,” Fisher said. “He has the ability to get to the second and third level of the defense and make people miss. He has the speed to run by people. He’s making good reads and following his blocks, but he’s also making a lot of yardage on just his own ability.”
It’s a familiar look for the Knights.
“Adam reminds me a lot of Ryan Campbell,” the coach said. “He has that same kind of small body – no body fat at all – with good strength and great feet. If anything, I would say that he has better feet than Ryan did. Ryan was more successful at this point in his career because he started right away as a sophomore and Adam didn’t. But I think Adam may be farther ahead at this point as a player.”