The Hannibal football team roared back from 13 points down to escape Mexico with a 20-19 win last season.
That one point proved the deciding factor in Hannibal's third straight North Central Missouri Conference championship as the Pirates finished one game ahead of their rival Bulldogs in the final standings.
Heading into Friday night, when the two programs meet again for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Porter Stadium, Hannibal coach Mark St. Clair expects conference implications to be on the line once again.
Hannibal has won three straight games against Mexico by a combined total of just 16 points. The past six matchups dating back to 2013 have all been decided by eight or fewer points.
St. Clair expects the margin for error to remain slim.
“Mexico is a good football team,” the veteran coach said. “They're going to be in the top two or three in the conference, for sure.”
The path for Hannibal (2-1, 1-0) to defend its NCMC dominance may very well require stopping Mexico (2-1, 1-0) and its dynamic offense. The Pirates are fresh off a 26-7 win at Boonville, while coach Steve Haag's Bulldogs trampled Marshall 55-14 last week with a balanced attack of 245 yards passing and 180 yards rushing.
Mexico senior quarterback Jonathon Grubb has thrown for four touchdowns strikes through three weeks this year, while Cameron Holman has been a do-it-all standout for the Bulldogs with 505 all-purpose yards and seven total touchdowns. Holman ran for two touchdowns in last year's game against Hannibal, including a 65-yard scamper on Mexico's first drive.
“They run downhill on offense and they have the speed to beat you deep,” St. Clair said of his upcoming opponent. “You've got to be able to stop the run because they're going to run downhill at you all night long. And then you've just got to have an awareness about you that they can go deep. We've got read our keys and make sure we're doing the little things right.”
Hannibal proved to have little problem with that last Friday against Boonville, when the Pirates held the hosts off the board through the first three quarters. The Hannibal defense, which was exploited by Helias and Quincy Notre Dame for big plays in its first two games this season, allowed just 12 first downs, forced three fumbles and even provided scoring with Kevin Campbell's third-quarter pick-six.
Campbell led Hannibal with 10 tackles last Friday, followed by Braden Schlueter with nine and Dante Reading with six. Bradley McCollum recorded 2 1/2 tackles for loss.
“We feel like we've gotten better every week on defense,” mentioned St. Clair. “Our aggression level is getting better, our pad level is lowering, which is really important. We've just got to discipline ourselves and have an awareness about us on the defensive side and think like a coach out there and understand situations and get our eyes where they belong. On defense, eyes are the key. We've got to see the play, we've got to read our keys and we've got to react.”
St. Clair noted that every member of his defense must be locked in for the unit to achieve success.
He likens his point to a stack of dominoes.
“You stack 'em up, and if you pull one out, it doesn't work,” he said. “We've got to have all 11 people doing their job and going 100 miles an hour. We can't have one person not doing things exactly right because things break down. The old adage is if the play starts right, it'll end right. If we're ready for the play and we're all in good stances, we like our chances. But we can't have breakdowns.”
Junior quarterback Gabe Worthington took the keys to the Hannibal offense last week, completing 10-for-13 attempts for 241 yards and three first-half touchdowns — the first to tight end Evan Allen and the next two to receiver Will Whitaker. Senior Wyatt Waelder, who also has spent time under center this season, starred as a wideout with four catches for 74 yards.
“Again, we still have two quarterbacks that we're pretty confident in,” St. Clair said. “Our ability to throw the ball has a lot to do with the fact that we're running better routes. We are delivering the ball, but we're doing a lot better job protecting the quarterback, running routes and getting open. That makes a big difference.”
With running backs Billy Smashey and JaQuez McGruder each averaging more than 70 yards rushing per game, the Pirates possess a dual-threat attack.
“We're a work in progress, but we're making strides,” said St. Clair. “How fast we make those strides is solely dependent on our ability to be here everyday with the right frame of mind so we start having not just the physical skills but the awareness we need to play at a high level.”