The Wilson and Millikan football teams have traveled parallel tracks to arrive at their marquee Moore League football matchup tonight. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Millikan where the winner will take hold of second place in the league.
“To be honest, this is the one I circled on the calendar,” Wilson coach Mark Ziegenhagen said. “It was going to come down to this for the second place spot again, kind of the same thing as last year.”
The Rams took down the Bruins 46-20 last season on a Saturday morning at Veterans Memorial Stadium because of the field construction at Wilson. Millikan went on to win its first playoff game since 1986.
“You’ve got a ton of guys on both teams who’ve been the underdogs and unsung heroes their whole lives while other guys are going to St. John Bosco, Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly,” Millikan coach Justin Utupo said. “It’s going to be a tough battle with guys who, when you walk around campus, you would never know they’re a Nik Lombardi on the field. We invite those challenges and scrappy games in the trenches.”
Wilson (5-3, 3-1) and Millikan (5-2, 3-1) have split their last six meetings, and the similarities between these teams don’t end there…
Wilson junior Ryan Pettway and Millikan junior Quanu Campbell-Caldwell are both returning starters who struggled at the outset of this season, and both offenses adjusted by taking pressure off of their signal callers.
Wilson attempted 117 pass attempts in its first four games, and Pettway didn’t have a quarterback rating above 85 until the St. Anthony win in week four. The Bruins have only asked Pettway to throw the ball 62 times in the last four games. Pettway’s passer rating is now above 100, and the junior has thrown for 1,325 yards, 13 touchdowns and only one interception.
Millikan struggled with injuries and a new offensive philosophy to begin the season, but the Rams learned from losses to Poly and Aquinas. Campbell-Caldwell missed the Poly game due to injury, and was sacked nine times against Aquinas.
“Sometimes the coaches have to look themselves in the mirror,” Utupo said. “We tried some things early on in the year, but at the end of the day, you have to stick to your bread and butter, and what helped us be successful last year by spreading the ball out.”
Campbell-Caldwell has turned his season around in league play with 576 yards passing and four touchdowns in three games.
Injuries have forced both teams to shuffle multiple ball carriers all season. Millikan lost returning starter Qu’Juan Campbell early in the season, and leaned on fellow senior Jaylen Jefferson to carry the load. Campbell has rushed for 447 yards and four touchdowns, while Jefferson has scored a team-high six touchdowns while averaging six yards per carry.
Wilson entered the year with three viable options in the backfield, but junior Dillon Harris emerged as the go-to ball carrier while racking up 557 yards rushing and a team-high seven touchdowns. However, he broke his collarbone in the recent win over Lakewood, and senior Marcos Nottingham stepped up to be the featured back. He has 527 yards rushing and four touchdowns this season, and two of the scores came against Lakewood.
Both teams entered the season with big name targets on the outside, but both have unexpected receiving leaders. Wilson senior Zach Dolphin is the go-to target as one of the only returning starters out wide, and he back back to back 150+ yard games last month, but Tyrie Robinson leads Wilson in total receptions. Dolphin has a team-high six touchdowns.
Millikan senior Malik Bradford is a Cal commit, but he was hampered by a hamstring injury to start the season. Senior Dylan Davis has emerged as a reliable receiver for Campbell-Caldwell with a team-high 35 receptions, 502 yards and three touchdowns.
Both offensive lines are led by unlikely seniors. Wilson center Christian Conrad and Millikan tackle Xavius Tauta were both at different schools two years ago, but have become key pieces in the trenches. READ MORE about Conrad and Tauta’s journeys to one of the most important games of their lives.
The same can be said on the other side of the trenches with Millikan’s defensive tackle Jacob Starkey and Wilson’s defensive end Angel Guzman. Two years ago, Starkey was a junior varsity player searching for a position, and Guzman was academically ineligible, but both of them will be team captains tonight. READ MORE about how they transformed their high school football careers with sticktoitivness.
Utupo’s comment about this game being full of undersized and under-appreciated players is so true for the linebackers on both sides. Wilson has shifted its lineup multiple times this season, but Ethan Moxley has been a force all season. The 5’10” junior has a team-high 72 tackles with a caused fumble and a sack.
Millikan has leaned heavily on its 5’9” 170-pound middle linebacker Nik Lombardi. The senior has a team-high 72 tackles with a pair of sacks.
“He’s the man,” Starkey said of Lombardi. “If I have any questions I go to Nik, even defensive line stuff. He knows everything.”
Both teams have a lot of athleticism in their defensive backfields, but neither unit has been very disruptive with only five combined interceptions this season. It may be an old cliche, but the turnover battle could very likely end up deciding a close game like this one.
“Our team is just getting started because they’re finally all playing together. They’re healthy and getting their chemistry back,” – Utupo
“Our team has so much potential, and we’ve shown some great signs and made great strides on offense and defense, but I don’t think we’ve been fully unleashed yet.” – Ziegenhagen
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