TULSA, DEC. 1 -- Despite the presence of two high-octane offenses, "the defense that comes to play" will determine the winner of Sunday's Mid-America Bowl, according to Montgomery-Rockville Coach Phil Martin.
His team is ready for its first shot at the national junior college championship against Coffeyville of Kansas, including one player who can view the game from a singular perspective: he's been a member of both teams.
No. 1 Coffeyville enters the game with perhaps a slight edge due to the "home-field advantage" -- Union-Tuttle Stadium is 70 miles from its campus. But the second-ranked Knights are not lacking in confidence. They believe they belong here, and they will tell you so.
"This is an even matchup, even," Montgomery-Rockville quarterback John Kaleo said. "We have two explosive offenses and two overaggressive defenses. It'll be high-scoring and crowd-pleasing."
Kaleo can more than back up his words: he is recipient of the inaugural national JuCo most valuable player award after passing for 2,963 yards and 32 touchdowns (to nine interceptions).
"I was kind of shocked by the award," Kaleo said. "I don't like to stand out because 68 players had something to do with it. Another quarterback would have had the same stats with our offensive scheme."
In it, Martin uses a three-wideout, no tight end setup, often adjusting to a four-wideout run-and-shoot format.
Dwayne Freeman had 42 catches for 908 yards, Tyrone Fitch caught 10 touchdowns among his 52 receptions, and Gary Kinard added nine scores among his 35. Carlos Smith had 34 receptions. Freeman also has averaged more than 20 yards rushing the ball.
When the Knights stay on the ground, all eyes will be on Andre Henry, who has rushed for 523 yards and seven touchdowns this fall.
Meanwhile, starting inside linebacker Mike Botts may be the only Knight with actual revenge on his mind Sunday. Revenge of sorts.
One of only three Knights not from Maryland, Virginia or the District, Botts spent the 1984 season as a redshirt for Coffeyville. The Cherryvale, Kan., native, realizing his future was not with this team, left to join the Marines.
After four years stationed at Quantico, he enrolled at Montgomery-Rockville after an unsuccessful attempt to find a job back in Kansas. Now he's starting for the Knights against his former Red Ravens.
"He just wants to play well because he's so close to home here," Martin said. "Mike was not that involved with their team, not enough to hold any grudges."
The Red Ravens have several offensive weapons Botts and company will have to stop. Coach Skip Foster, in his second year after succeeding his father, Dick, said today to expect a grind-it-out running attack.
"We like to run more than pass," Foster said. "There's nothing fancy with our offense, no surprises."
Among the offensive constants have been running back Tony Jeffery (801 yards, 12 rushing touchdowns), quarterback John Mattress (1,400 yards passing, bound for Ohio State) and receiver Troy Dickey (27 catches, six touchdowns).
Martin says he is most concerned with stopping Mattress.
"He's a threat," the coach said. "I remember when we came out here in 1986 to play Northeastern Oklahoma. They were supposed to be a great running team, and they came out bombing away." The Knights lost that Mid-America Bowl, 38-7, in a game not determining the national championship.
Defensively the Red Ravens are paced by linebacker Tony Davis (team-best 93 tackles) and strong safety Prentice Rhone, who's known for more than his defensive skills (30.2 yards per kickoff return and 14.6 per punt runback). Rhone has scored a touchdown on both a kickoff and a punt return in 1990.
But the combination of a poised quarterback in Mattress and the multi-pronged ground attack is what concerns Martin.
He says the team needs especially solid performances from linebacker Derek Ruffin, defensive lineman Ron Nicholson, and defensive back Carl Owens to win. The entire unit must rise for the Knights to return to Rockville with the big prize.
"The defense has got to be our high point," Martin said. "With such high-powered offenses, that's the only way to win."