SIOUX CITY | Ja’Vonte Johnson didn’t quarterback the Fargo Invaders in last Saturday’s 29-7 first-round Northern Elite Football League playoff win over the Northland Bulls.
Coach Jason Garnand’s Sioux City Stampede are preparing for tonight’s semifinal game at Memorial Field believing that the NEFL’s passing leader is going to play. Johnson threw for league-highs of 1,677 yards and 21 touchdown passes during the regular season.
“He hurt his throwing hand," said Garnand. "He’s too good to sit out for a game like this. He’s very elusive. He’s a playmaker. He’ll do what it takes to move Fargo down the field.”
Three times this season, Johnson passed for over 300 yards. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound native of New Iberia, La., threw at least two touchdown passes every game, including a May 19 contest at Memorial Field when he passed for 276 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-15 loss to the Stampede.
Facing a blitzing Sioux City defense, Johnson had season-highs in completions (27), attempts (60) and interceptions (7). Stampede linemen Derek Geddings, A.J. Castro and Chris Williams recorded 12, 10 and nine tackles, respectively, for the NEFL defensive leaders, which also received two interceptions apiece from cornerback Warren Joiner and free safety Mike Trobaugh.
Joiner paced the NEFL with eight interceptions and tied for the league lead with two defensive touchdowns. Tonight, his focus will be on Fargo’s Jon Baume, who paced the league with 39 catches for 743 yards and 13 touchdowns, figures which all lead the league.
“Baume is their main target which plays to our strength because we have the league’s best defensive back in Joyner,” said Garnand. “He will live up to that challenge to cover Baume. Every play will be a good matchup to see. What (Joiner) has to do is not give up the big play. He will get a few catches, but in Warren’s mind, he doesn’t want to give up one single reception in this game.”
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Baume had two catches for 24 yards while working with quarterback Nick Jackson, who passed for 115 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in last Saturday's playoff opener. Running back Hayden Zenner rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns for the fourth-seeded Invaders, which enter Memorial riding a six-game winning streak.
Sioux City, with a win, will reach a championship game for the second straight year. Garnand guided last year’s squad to the Midwest Football Alliance championship.
During NEFL action, Sioux City’s defense, paced by outside linebacker TyRae Kemp’s 50 tackles, didn’t allow more than two touchdowns in a game. Five players other than Joiner have at least one interception while Williams and Geddings have nine and 6.5 sacks, respectively.
Meanwhile, quarterback Dorian Ballentine (1,330 yards passing, 13 TDs) guided an offense which converted four of five red-zone opportunities in a 33-6 rout over Northland to close the regular season. Ballentine has three of the league’s top receivers at his disposal, Jake McDonald (23 catches, 425 yards, 7 TDs), Bryce Harshman (25, 397, 3) and Bret Van Muyden (23, 352, 4).
Sioux City also has one of the league’s best running back combinations in T.J. James (501 yards, 7 TDs) and Larry Taylor (347, 6).
“We have to sustain drives,” said Garnand. “It goes to the execution of our offensive line. They need to pick up blocks and move the defensive line. That’s going to be a key for us.”