Smashmouth football has pretty much disappeared in the era of spread offenses and passing the ball 50 times a game, but the ability to run the football is still a requirement to win a championship at the highest level.
As the Southern Section begins its Division 1 playoffs on Friday night, one of the most intriguing teams is No. 4-seeded West Hills Chaminade, which has an experienced offensive line and one of the best running backs in Southern California in senior Andrew Van Buren.
When the going gets tough, the Eagles switch to their power-pitch play, where everyone, including the quarterback, blocks for Van Buren. He rushed for 332 yards and five touchdowns against Gardena Serra last month.
It was as if the Eagles were daring Serra to stop the play. Everyone knew it was coming but the Cavaliers felt helpless.
“He breaks arm tackles,” Chaminade coach Ed Croson said.
“I told the guys, ‘There’s no team that should stop us inside the red zone, especially with the power pitch,’” Van Buren said.
A good Orange Lutheran team travels to West Hills to face the Eagles in a Division 1 opener on Friday, and dealing with Van Buren will be a major challenge.
“People missed him,” Croson said. “He’s big. He gets away from guys.”
Van Buren, 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, had been overshadowed for two years while sharing running back duties with standout T.J. Pledger, who left for Florida IMG Academy after last season. This year, Van Buren has rushed for 1,219 yards and scored 21 touchdowns.
He always believed in his ability, even when he and Pledger showed up together as freshmen.
“Wherever you go, high school, college, NFL, you have to compete,” he said. “I was going to come here whether T.J. came or not. We’re really good friends, and I knew he’d make me better and I’d make him better. At the end of the day, it worked out for both of us.
“I knew since day one what I was capable of. Now it’s just time for me to show others my abilities. I always have to thank the guys up front. Without them, nothing is possible.”
The Division 1 playoffs aren’t about finesse. This is big-boy football, and the battle in the trenches means everything. Chaminade’s outstanding offensive line, led by tackle Dylan Kellogg, can be very effective. And junior quarterback Ryan Stevens can’t be overlooked, especially having Stanford-bound receiver Michael Wilson as an option.
The Eagles are 9-1 and their only loss was to Bellflower St. John Bosco 31-17. Chaminade has experience against top teams the last two seasons, eliminated by Corona Centennial in the playoffs each time.
“The previous years we’ve lost to Centennial,” Van Buren said. “We never played a high-quality team like them in the preseason. This year we played St. John Bosco. I think we learned a lot from them. This go around, we know things to fix to play big teams in the Trinity League.”
Perhaps the only people more excited than Chaminade fans about Van Buren are fans from Boise State, the school that Van Buren has been committed to for months.
“Boise State was my first offer,” he said. “They’ve been talking to me since sophomore year and they believed in me even when I wasn’t necessarily playing running back a lot. They still believed I had the abilities to do the things I’m doing now. Their loyalty, their coaching staff and even the players, it’s a great fit for me.”