SIOUX CITY | As Jason Garnand discussed the Sioux City Stampede’s strengths, execution from the offensive and defensive lines were certainly in the conversation.
Starting left tackle Zac Woods is one of the reasons the Stampede have topped 30 points in each of their last two Northern Elite Football League games. Left guard Ryan Miller will also start in Saturday night’s Elite Bowl XI against the defending NEFL champion Minneapolis Warriors along with center Adam Nelson, right guard Jameel Cunningham and right tackle Bryce Drager.
Sioux City’s defensive line has come upon a different look since its 12-7 win over Minneapolis on June 16, considering the additions of Devin Groenhagen, Arthur Doakes, Steve Schmidt and Anthony Thomas. They provide depth on a line which has already seen sharp play from athletes who’ve been with the team from the beginning including Chris Williams, Dex Gordon and A.J. Castro.
“Since we played the Warriors the last time, we have a complete defensive line," said Garnand. "It’s bigger. It’s faster. It can put pressure on a mobile quarterback.
“Arthur Doakes played offensive line for the (Sioux City) Bandits, but because of his size, he can plug holes. Steve Schmidt and Anthony Thomas are big horses who can give others from the defensive line spells and plug gaps.”
Play from the defensive line highlighted a unit that forced two three-and-outs on Fargo’s first two possessions in last Saturday’s 34-12 NEFL semifinal win. Williams and Groenhagen provided pressure which resulted in four takeaways, including three interceptions from cornerback Warren Joiner.
Sioux City’s offensive line gave quarterback Dorian Ballentine (1,515 yards passing, 16 TDs) time to throw against Fargo and didn’t allow a sack. Ballentine picked up from where he left off in a 33-6 win on July 21 against Northland, when he completed 14 of 19 passes for 218 yards.
“The offensive line is one of the spots I feel the most excited about,” said Garnand. “They’ve turned the corner. They’ve become really aggressive. Their execution is 100 percent better. Without those guys in the trenches, the offense doesn’t move much.
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“Against Northland, we had a 150-yard rusher (T.J. James) and a 200-yard passer. It goes to show the offensive line has turned into more of a physical unit that executes. There’s one stat that people don’t see and it’s penalties. Our offensive line has really cleaned up. They’ve stopped second and long and first and long situations. That’s what continues drives.”
Stampede rushing leader James (566 yards rushing, 7 TDs) carried for a game-high 65 yards against Fargo. Larry Taylor (347 yards, 6 TDs) has been a part of the squad’s two-headed rushing monster throughout the season.
Meanwhile, Antuawan Jones (287, 2) has added another dimension to the attack, especially with his 149 yards in the last two games. Ballentine was the NEFL’s top rushing quarterback during the season with 271 yards while leading receiver Jake McDonald (27 catches, 478 yards, 8 TDs) contributed 17 yards on a pair of fourth-quarter jet sweeps with the game already in control.
Adversity, according to Garnand, is another key to a win on Saturday night.
Defending NEFL champion Minneapolis rallied from a 9-7 deficit to score 29 fourth-quarter points in its 36-9 semifinal win over St. Paul. Garnand simply said that the Warriors reacted better to adversity during the fourth-quarter momentum shift.
During the regular season, Minneapolis quarterback Dave Connors passed for 476 yards and seven touchdowns. Tyrell Martin’s 614 yards rushing included 99 yards in the loss at Sioux City.
“I see a very athletic football team in Minneapolis,” said Garnand. “They know how to win at big times and when to win. They are the champions. We have tons of respect for them.
“This was why we moved to this football league, to play teams the caliber of Minneapolis with their athletes, their coach and their ownership group. When we came to this league, the dream was to play the defending champions. A lot of eyes are going to be on this game. They want to see this matchup when it’s for all the marbles.”