Contain is the challenge: GJ’s mission is stopping Regis Jesuit’s high-powered offense

Grand Junction middle linebacker Aaron Minnick runs through a drill Tuesday with teammates at Grand Junction High School. The Tigers (10-1) face Regis Jesuit (11-0) on Friday in the third round of the Class 5A football playoffs.


Grand Junction vs. Regis Jesuit

Class 5A State Quarterfinals

Friday, 6 p.m. Stocker Stadium

RADIO: KTMM-AM (1340); KKNN-FM (95.1)

RECORDS: Grand Junction 10-1, Regis Jesuit 11-0.

LAST WEEK: Grand Junction defeated Highlands Ranch 35-28; Regis defeated Arapahoe 49-14

GAME NOTES: Regis Jesuit hasn’t always been a top-tier program. The Raiders missed the playoffs in 2006, lost in the first round the next two years and reached the quarterfinals last season, Mark Nolan’s first season as head coach.

The Raiders have defeated 10 playoff teams this season. Nolan was the director of recruiting at the University of Colorado before arriving at Regis. Nolan’s approach is to attack in all three phases of the game, beginning offensively with running back Jordan Jungers, who has 1,147 yards rushing this season.

Senior quarterbacks Eystin Salum and Luke Longfield split the snaps, combining to throw for 18 touchdowns and only three interceptions this season.

Grand Junction has a solid quarterback of its own in junior Sean Rubalcaba. Rubalcaba had 260 yards of total offense last week against Highlands Ranch. The Tigers placekicker Tyler Winder kicked field goals of 19 and 35 yards against the Falcons last week and has made all five of his field goal attempts this season.

Grand Junction’s offensive line has gone relatively unnoticed, but tackles James Wilkinson and Cody Cottrell, guards CJ Deters and Dylan Reed and center Danny Wehner have paved the way for 3,247 yards rushing this season.

The challenge has been laid out for the Grand Junction defense.

Friday night at Stocker Stadium, the No. 10 Tigers (10-1) face No. 2 Regis Jesuit (11-0) in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A playoffs. Kickoff is at 6 p.m., with the gates opening at 5 p.m. Tickets are $6 for students, $8 for adults.

The Tigers have the task of containing a Raider offense that’s been averaging 36 points per game and has scored 49 points in each of is first two playoff games.

Regis has two quarterbacks, Eystin Salum and Luke Longfield, who each have about 900 yards passing. The Raiders feature a 1,100-yard running back, Jordan Jungers, and two receivers, Connor McKay and Casey Young, with a combined 77 catches.

The Tigers plan to combat Regis’ group of playmakers with a feisty group of linebackers, all juniors.

“As a defense this is going to be a huge game,” middle linebacker Aaron Minnick said. “Their offense has been marching on every team and putting up points, so we have to stay strong.”

Next to Minnick on the inside is Evan Duff. The outside linebackers are Jerreon Dennis and Gage Casey.

“They work well as a group,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said. “Coach (Brandon) Harrison and Coach (Mike) Pavelich have done a great job getting those guys prepared within our scheme and help them be ready to attack.”

There were questions coming into the season about the four linebacker positions in the Tigers’ 3-4 scheme, with only Dennis returning as a starter.

“We had to replace Tyler Stanford and Mitch Irwin and we didn’t know who was going to be in those spots,” Owens said. “We figured Minnick was going to take one of the spots, but Evan Duff evolved into a linebacker, and Gage Casey has been one of the surprise guys of the year. When he got an opportunity, he took advantage of it.”

Dennis was expected to be a force on the defense, and has lived up to expectations. He leads the Tigers with 65 tackles and six sacks.

“Jerreon Dennis flies around,” said Harrison, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. “He’s not only an extremely talented football player, but he has a motor that’s unparalleled.”

Dennis has been starting since his freshman year, and has a simple outlook to playing the position.

“We just have to be ruthless and relentless,” Dennis said. “We have to fly around and always be around the ball.”

Casey has 42 tackles and provides a consistent strong-side presence to Dennis on the weak side.

Harrison said the outside linebackers have a lot of responsibility in both stopping the run and containing the pass.

“It’s a tough position to play because you have to be very versatile,” Harrison said. “You have to be mentally disciplined because they not only have to drop into coverage, but they have to take on pulling guards and they have to be punishing hitters when they get to the ball carrier.”

Minnick has been an imposing player on the inside, helping to limit opponents to 161 yards rushing per game. Minnick is second on the team with 64 tackles.

“I have to be very vocal on defense,” Minnick said. “If someone needs help I need to know where they need to go, and need to be a leader on the field.”

Duff began the year at defensive line, but made the switch to linebacker halfway though the season.

“We need to be as physical as we can,” said Duff, who has 39 tackles. “Our defense hasn’t played the best the last few games, so we want to play that shutout defense and not let them put up any numbers.”

The Tigers have their biggest challenge of the season, but say they’re ready to see if they can play with a team like Regis.

“I’m pumped,” Casey said. “I can’t wait to see what they have.”


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