It has been one of the marquee high school football matchups on the Central Coast, and Friday night’s game between Atascadero High and Arroyo Grande will be no different.
Everything is on the line. The winner will sit atop the PAC 5 and control its own destiny with one week to go in the regular season.
Atascadero has owned the series over the past 10 years. The Greyhounds have won seven of the past 10 meetings between the teams, but the Eagles have won two out of the past three games, including a 35-21 win last season.
Last season’s game between the teams had to be played on Saturday afternoon due to a power outage, but it has been Arroyo Grande’s defense that has been lights out of late. The defense, which has shut out its past three opponents, will come face to face with the powerful Atascadero running game that features the potent one-two punch of running backs Marc Martin and R.J. Reusche.
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“They have two solid running backs who we have been playing against since we were little kids and the biggest offensive line we are probably going to face all year,” senior Arroyo Grande defensive linemen Cole Cunningham said. “I totally respect them and think they are good offensive linemen, but I don’t think I should treat them any differently.”
The Atascadero offensive line averages 270 pounds, and Martin and Reusche are no lightweights. Martin is listed at 220 pounds and Reusche is 195. The goal for the Eagles defense is to tackle the backs low.
“If you go high on either one, you are not going to be able to tackle them,” Cunningham said. “If you try and make an awesome play and don’t break down and don’t think about it, you’re going to get juked out too.”
“We don’t want to overthink things or overpursue because when we do we give them lanes,” Arroyo Grande linebacker Sam Ness said. “When they get running north and south, it’s bad.”
Ness and Cunningham are a big reason why Arroyo Grande has given up an average of just 116 yards on the ground in its past four wins.
Even though more than 70 percent of Atascadero’s offensive production comes via the run, Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen has been preparing for play-action looks all week.
“Early in the year (Atascadero’s passing game) wasn’t impressive, but they have been doing a much better job throwing the ball lately,” Goossen said.
Settling in as the Greyhounds starter, quarterback Carson Rinkenberger has done well managing games and is coming off his best performance of the season, a 213-yard, three-touchdown game against San Luis Obispo, where he threw only one incomplete pass. Elijah Cooks, Rinkenberger’s backup, has emerged as the passer’s favorite target at the tight end spot. Cooks, a 6-foot-2 junior, has used his big body and speed to average 19 yards per catch.
So is the Arroyo Grande defense worried about getting beat through the air? Not particularly.
“We have Bradley Mickey,” said Ness, who leads the PAC 5 with 99 tackles this season. “It’s difficult to pass against our secondary no matter what, so we just pretty much get to worry about the run and if we overcommit we know we have a good secondary behind us to make plays.”
Mickey is second in the PAC 5 with three interceptions, two of which he’s returned for touchdowns, and teammate Benny Willkomm tops the category with four.
“This is a game that will test our skills,” Goossen said. “I expect the game to come down to the last minute.”
If it does, Atascadero might have the advantage due to experience in close games this season. Atascadero has won three games by seven points or less, including a comeback 26-23 win over Stockdale and an overtime win over James Logan three weeks ago.
“They seem to come out on top in a lot of close games,” Goossen said. “They are a gritty team and they have made the big plays in the big moments.”
But this week, Arroyo Grande was elevated to the No. 25 ranking in California, according to MaxPreps, and they intend to keep it that way.
“Our main goal is to just go out there and set a precedent and show that we are a great team,” Ness said.