Make no mistake, coach Jake Mueller and the Muscatine football team are thrilled to be 3-0. But the Muskies haven’t been satisfied with their performance on their way to an undefeated record three weeks into the season.
“We’ve shown glimpses of being a good team here and there,” Mueller said. “But we haven’t played a game that we’ve left being satisfied with how we’ve played.”
Mueller and the Muskies know that has to change this week when they play host to Johnston, the No. 7 ranked team in Class 4A and easily the Muskies' toughest opponent to date this season, in their final non-district game.
“They’re extremely talented everywhere,” Mueller said, “but specifically on the defensive side of the ball.”
Indeed, Johnston boasts a defense that has forced seven turnovers in three games and held its first two opponents to 11.8 points per game before losing 27-0 to No. 2 West Des Moines Dowling, the five-time defending Class 4A state champions, last week.
Mueller likened Johnston’s defensive personnel to that of some of the good Bettendorf teams he’s seen over the years. The front seven is big and athletic, and cornerback Anthony Coleman is headed to North Dakota State to play college football.
“We have to be patient,” Mueller said of his offense. “We don’t expect things to be easy by any means. We can’t get disgruntled if we have a bad series, we just have to stay the course. We know it’s going to be tough sledding for most of the game.
“We just have to play mistake-free football and play tough all four quarters.”
However, putting drives together has been easier said than done for the Muskies so far this year despite big statistical seasons from skill players.
Tim Nimely ranks first in Class 4A with 82 carries and sixth with 450 yards. The sophomore also has scored three touchdowns. At receiver, Eli Gaye has 32 receptions for 416 yards and two touchdowns. The Muscatine school record for receptions is 80, and the all-time state record is 95 through a nine-game season.
Also, senior quarterback Carson Orr has been effective all season with 559 passing yards on a 63 percent completion percentage.
Much improved from last season to be sure, but Mueller knows it can still get better.
“It seems like it’s one or two things that derail our drives each time,” Mueller said. “Last week there was a holding call. We’ve had a bad snap or two and missed assignments. It’s not one specific thing, it’s just there’s times when nine or 10 out of 11 guys are doing the right thing.”
Mueller wants to see his Muskies play a complete game in all three phases, not just offense. That means better tackling on defense and special teams. Although Johnston doesn’t have an explosive offense, the team that boasts 31 seniors has a balanced rushing attack led by Jordan Rusch’s 241 yards and aided by dual-threat quarterback Andrew Nord, who will head to Iowa and play center field on the baseball team next season.
Mueller is optimistic, as his team has finally been able to settle into a normal four-day practice schedule with no Thursday game and no Labor Day in the way. That’s resulted in one of Muscatine’s best weeks of practice this season.
Now, Mueller hope that translates positively when Muscatine takes the field against Johnston and Brian Woodley, who coached Mueller at Cedar Falls.
“We’re hopeful that’s going to translate to doing some good things (today),” Mueller said. “We really want to be settling into becoming the team we think we’re capable of becoming.”