SPRINGFIELD – This Friday, the Springfield Millers (4-0) host the Thurston Colts (2-2) in the annual football rivalry game. With stars abound on both sides, it’d be easy to get caught up in the action of the quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers – the usual suspects.
But if you do that, you’d be missing the real action: The offensive line play.
“I will tell you this right now, the most important thing is offensive line play,” said Justin Starck, Thurston’s coach and a former Oregon Duck offensive lineman. “If I had to choose between having explosive playmakers and skill players, versus having a dominant offensive line, I take the line every day of the week. It’s a helpless feeling when those guys can’t get it done.”
No team wants their skill players to feel helpless. Especially two teams with such talented skill players.
For the Millers, they have star running back Connor Dye, who has rushed for 640 yards and 10 touchdowns behind Springfield’s offensive line, which added one of the best lineman in the state in transfer Sam Keen from Marist Catholic over the summer. Many teams have keyed in on Dye and stacked the line of scrimmage, but the offensive line play has countered every team so far.
“They’ve all done really well. We can’t block everybody when they play those heavy fronts. I mean, there’s gonna be unblocked people. We have five linemen and a fullback so we can block six, and sometimes they’re playing eight or nine in the box,” said Frank Geske, Springfield head coach. “Our line constantly amazes me. … Scheme-wise, we’re still not as sharp as we will be even this next week. And that’s what’s exciting to me as they keep getting better with all that stuff.”
For the Colts, the skill players have been thriving through the air. Quarterback Noah Blair has 1,212 yards passing and 13 touchdowns through four games. Starck said at the beginning of the year that Thurston’s best teams all-time were led by offensive line play, and that that’s going to be the key to the rivalry game this season.
“We’re gonna have to stay healthy, we’re gonna have to have good play at the line of scrimmage, and those two things are going to determine a lot. And that’s what has shaped up to be Springfield’s strength,” Starck said. “To add Sam to that group definitely makes them one of the more dominant offensive and defensive fronts. So that’s what it’s gonna come down to for us is being able to compete at the line of scrimmage and give our quarterback and our skill players time to do what they can do. We know our guys can do things, but we gotta give them enough time to get it done.”
If Thurston can’t give Blair and his weapons time to work, it’ll be a long game for the Colts offense.
For Geske, it’ll be his introduction into the rivalry game in his first year at the helm of Springfield. Coming over from Marist though, he knows how much the rivalry means to the players and school.
During the preseason, Geske said he refused to even say Thurston’s name in practice. That’s not to say he’s afraid to make a statement.
“We’re gonna wear blue for home games this season, but we’ll wear black for them
because they love their black uniforms. So we’ll make that real special,” Geske said.
Springfield is off to their first 4-0 start since 2015, the year they last won the rivalry game. But the offseason hype around the Millers was hard to miss for Thurston.
“We are definitely hearing about it a lot, whether it’s the media or just chit-chat across town, we know that they’re coming, and we know that they’re there and they’ve made it known,” Starck said. “They’ve put the sword in the ground, so to speak, and they put the challenge out there. So we’re aware of them.”
Thurston’s had Springfield’s number the last seven times. Whether the Colts make it eight in a row or the Millers finally corral their rivals, the play in the trenches will be the key.
“They hammered Springfield last year. And I think that’s on everybody in our locker room’s mind. They want to go out and show out. Which is never a bad thing, that confidence,” Geske said. “They’ve got a good football team. They played a little bit different pre-league schedule than what we did, so I don’t take anything away from them on that 0-2 start. We’ll be here next Friday and let it all hang out, that’s for sure.”
The Main Event
THURSTON COLTS (2-2) AT SPRINGFIELD MILLERS (4-0)
■ Game facts: Friday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m., SHS. Tickets: Adults ($6), Students ($4)
■ What2Know: The annual Springfield rivalry game is shaping up to be one of the more competitive games in years. Thurston bounced back from an 0-2 start for the second straight year, while Springfield has its first 4-0 start since 2015 – the last time it beat Thurston.
■ Pierre’s take: Differing offensive styles clash in this rivalry game. Springfield relies heavily on the run game with Connor Dye, while the Colts will continue to use Noah Blair’s arm and the speed of their wide receivers to stretch the field.