Northwestern, Stratford quarterbacks to decide AAAA Division II state championship

bmccormick@heraldonline.comDecember 6, 2013 

Considering the best two players on the field Saturday in the Class AAAA Division II football state championship game will be quarterbacks, it’s impossible to get around the storyline of the personal matchup pitting Northwestern’s Mason Rudolph and Stratford’s Jacob Park. That they’ll have two big hands in the game’s outcome is undeniable; one of them will be touching the ball on nearly every play.

“Our offense ends and starts with Mason, their offense ends and starts with Park, and both of them are great football players,” said Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson. “It should be a big-time atmosphere for two big-time quarterbacks.”

No one at Monday’s state championship press gathering could remember two South Carolina Shrine Bowl quarterbacks ever squaring off in a state final. Almost as rare is a South Carolina championship game involving two heralded quarterback prospects like Rudolph, headed to Oklahoma State, and Park, headed to Georgia. It’s the kind of fantastical clash that would be cooked up in an online message board on a boring Monday afternoon.

Consider too that a Big 12-bound quarterback and an SEC-bound quarterback are playing Saturday’s state final at Williams-Brice Stadium, the home of the South Carolina Gamecocks. Neither quarterback was offered a scholarship by Steve Spurrier’s program.

“That’s beyond unique,” said 247sports recruiting analyst Ryan Bartow. “But, four-star (Park) and three-star (Rudolph), two guys that have put up big numbers in their career, but most of all have won.”

Bartow called Rudolph “a robot,” as accurate a description as you could find. The senior has thrived in Northwestern’s scheme, one closely akin to the offense he hopes to one day pilot at Oklahoma State. Rudolph has thrown for 3,889 yards, 56 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season, while completing 72 percent of his passes.

“He just sits in that pocket and moves the head around and throws where Kyle wants him to,” said Bartow. “Some people say he’s a system guy, but he runs that system great.”

Rudolph’s ability to eviscerate secondaries has the full attention of Stratford defenders.

“Corners are just gonna have to be on the money the whole time,” said standout Stratford linebacker Cecil Smith. “I have confidence in my DBs and my safety to really get some picks out of there.”

Park is anything but a system quarterback. In fact, Stackley, normally a devout disciple of running football, has tailored his team’s offensive attack to highlight Park’s bazooka arm. He’s tossed for 3,340 yards and 29 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions.

The problem with defending Park is that when the called play deteriorates, he can run the ball too, as evinced by his front-flip touchdown run in the Knights’ win over South Pointe last Friday.

“You can create whatever perfect scenario you want in your head, but it’s just like playing Johnny Manziel,” Richardson said. “We can go in and say we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that, or whatever. But when a guy is an athlete and makes plays, your game plan is only as good as the execution, and even then, sometimes an athlete just out-athletes you.”

“I’ve seen he likes to pull down the ball and run a little bit, so we’ll have to get a little action on him,” said Northwestern safety Corey Seargent with a sly grin. “If you have good coverage, he’s gonna pull it down and run. So we have to be balanced on both the blitz and the coverage.”

Media attention has followed the pair all season, a product of their high profile recruitments. Park, 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, chose Georgia over an entire kitchen table’s worth of offers, including Alabama, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Auburn, Tennessee and Virginia Tech. Rudolph, 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, opted for Oklahoma State over Virginia Tech and LSU.

To both quarterbacks’ credit, they tried to deflect and swat attention at Monday’s state championship press conference like it was an annoying horse fly.

“It’s not a one-man game,” said Park, who will play in the Army All-American all-star game in January. “It’s 11 versus 11. That’s something you think about, and that’s good for headlines, but that’s not gonna win the game.”

“It’s a great opportunity for sure and it’s gonna be a good game,” said Rudolph. “Going up against a quarterback like Park, and I’m sure they’ve got other athletes, but it will be a good challenge and a fun Saturday.”

Still, as Richardson said, the matchup is “exciting for the state and shows what kind of football we have here.” That begs the question: Why are both prospects headed out of state to play their college pigskin?

Neither guy was recruited by Clemson because the Tigers have Deshaun Watson, the country’s No. 1-rated QB, joining the team for next season. But why not South Carolina?

Rudolph, like Justin Worley before, didn’t really fit the Gamecocks’ scheme. But Park did.

“That’s one that for years to come will be a big head-scratcher,” said Bartow, who suggested that South Carolina put all of its effort into recruiting Drew Barker, a high school QB who eventually opted for the University of Kentucky.

Bartow says one of the things that sticks out most about Park and Rudolph, and that’s often overlooked, is that they’re both winners, a thought echoed by Stackley.

“They’re tremendous competitors,” he said. “Tangibles aside, how much a competitor are you? And they are.”

A victory Saturday would be a Hallmark conclusion to Richardson and Rudolph’s coach-player relationship. Richardson replaced legendary Northwestern coach Jimmy Wallace after the 2010 state title, while Rudolph took the reins from Trojan all-time great QB Justin Worley shortly thereafter.

“We both just attacked the job in the same way, we’ve worked our tails off,” said Richardson earlier this week. “Mason has done a great job of that. He’s led the football team and he’s got this group around him and they’ve done a good job of trusting each other and just growing those relationships.”

Worley sat at the state championship press conference table three straight years, and now Rudolph has taken his seat at the same table the last two.

“It’s a credit to the hard work that he’s done to prepare himself to be a big-time quarterback in this state,” said Richardson. “And what his teammates have done, to accept him and grow with him.”

The same could be said for Park, the only four-year quarterback starter in the history of the Stratford program. Smith, a longtime friend of Park’s, knows that his quarterback will be ready for the limelight Saturday.

“All season he’s been focused, so it’s just another game for him,” said Smith. “After this game, he’s got two more games and then he’s going to college, so this is just another big game for him. He’s gonna be ready to show out Saturday, yes sir.”

Both Park and Rudolph graduate in December and will be on college campuses in January. Bartow thinks the pair will redshirt, though Rudolph has mentioned he’d like to play as soon as possible. Before that, the two will quarterback the South Carolina squad in the Shrine Bowl on Dec. 21 in Spartanburg.

Before that, they’ll battle for a state championship.

“It’s not just about the quarterbacks,” said Stackley, “but it’s certainly exciting to have two quarterbacks of this caliber playing in the state championship game.

Bret McCormick •  803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T

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