KEVIN MERZ: ‘Bart Ball’ and the challenge awaiting Bishop Dwenger

Kevin Merz plays quarterback for Bishop Dwenger in 2006.



Bishop Dwenger and Defensive Coordinator Casey Kolkman have faced just about every type of offense imaginable during the 2018 season.

In the SAC, we are used to the spread power rushing mixed in with the boot passes from Snider.

We know that Bishop Luers can sling it all over the field out of multiple formations.
Homestead will challenge you with a tight gun spread look.

Even Wayne this year posed a different threat using two tight ends on most snaps and running a beautiful stretch zone concept with an excellent “boot series” of plays off the outside zone look.

Last week, the Saints showed Angola that the true “spread” in November just won’t get it done against the Saints.

However, there is one offense that Dwenger, and really no one in northeast Indiana, gets to see on a weekly basis anymore. It is an offense that is predicated on deception, quick-hitting run plays and discipline at the point of attack by the defense, coupled with an attitude and nastiness up front that comes from hitting your opponent in the mouth over and over again. This is the offense that Mishawaka, Friday’s sectional opponent, runs.

It is an offense perfected under legendary coach Bart Curtis (now at Warsaw), and handed over to current Mishawaka head coach (and former Cavemen offensive coordinator) Keith Kinder. Its accepted name in the football community is the “flexbone triple option,” but around the Mishawaka and South Bend area, it is simply known as “Bart Ball.”

Nobody (and I mean NOBODY) in the state of Indiana runs “Bart Ball” (named after Curtis) to perfection quite the way Mishawaka does. This offense takes what you give it, and then adds a few more yards at the end for good measure. It is an offense uniquely designed to consistently make the defensive player incorrect on every decision they make. A frustrating task awaits Bishop Dwenger this Friday as they head north and into The Cave to take on Mishawaka.

Bart Ball forces you to be disciplined, to do your job defensively and not be a hero flying to the ball or the ball carrier will end up right past you. It puts a premium on respecting both the quarterback and fullback (yes I said fullback in 2018) and being completely gap sound. One man out of position can spell disaster in the blink of an eye for an aggressive Saints defense.

The balance that Mishawaka plays with offensively does not come from a run-to-pass type balance (679 rushing attempts on the season to only 34 passing attempts), but rather from a rushing attack that keeps you guessing which workhorse has the football. This is evident in the Cavemen’s rushing numbers as their ground game is spearheaded by two men who have racked up the yardage in remarkable fashion.

The guy “pulling the trigger” for the Cavemen, as Snider coach Kurt Tippmann likes to put it, is senior quarterback Sam Shively (#4). The whole attack begins with his decision each and every time the ball is snapped. That decision is usually pretty basic, either hand to the fullback or pull the ball and find the gap. Shively has made the decision to pull and run it 174 times this season for 1,074 yards and 25 touchdowns. He averages 6.7 yards a carry and is faster than you think in the open field (just ask Penn after consecutive 50-plus yard touchdowns to open the game). Containing Shively and forcing him into passing situations will be crucial to the Saints’ success as he has only completed 18-of-34 passes for 358 yards and 6 touchdowns.

As good as Shively has been, this offense goes with how fullback Chris Harnes (#2) goes. The senior fullback at only 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds soaking wet has amassed 2,642 yards on 397 carries this season averaging 203 yards per game and 26 rushing touchdowns. An absolute force to be reckoned with, he is never hidden in the slot, never split out wide, never used in tricky formations or personnel packages. They don’t hide him and he does not want to hide. He will be lined up on every snap 3.5 yards -behind quarterback Sam Shively in his three point stance eager to take his 12th consecutive carry for seven yards, knowing inside that’s what the Cavemen love to do over and over again is wearing down his opponents.

Harnes makes himself small (as all good flexbone backs do) going through the initial line of defenders and then has the speed to turn on the afterburners, dusting anyone in his wake. Stop Harnes, you stop the Cavemen! Easier said than done.

So what does Bishop Dwenger need to do to slow down the vaunted rushing attack of Mishawaka that has produced 493 yards rushing this year on 6A powerhouse Penn, 284 yards rushing against 6A semi-state participant Valparaiso, and 315 yards against past Dwenger nemesis Lowell? DWENGER MUST WIN FIRST DOWN!

Mishawaka is extremely frustrating to play and coach against for a variety of reasons but its ability to control the clock by possessing the ball and rattling off 6 yards at a time is infuriating as a coaching staff because you spend your entire first quarter looking at the clock wondering when you will get the ball back. Stuffing the Cavemen on first down is the most crucial aspect of playing them. If they get 6 yards on first down, they will pick up another first down on second or third down. If you hold them to 4th and 1 they will go for it no matter their field position (and more often than not pick it up) and then the cycle starts over again for another few plays, all while Dwenger’s offense (not exactly the most explosive unit in its own right) stands and gets cold looking at the clock themselves.
Dwenger must make causing negative yardage plays on first down a priority. Putting the Cavemen “behind the chains” into 2nd and 3rd and long’s is what Snider has done masterfully the last two years in the playoffs against Mishawaka. Forcing them to throw the football is exactly what Bishop Dwenger wants, and what Mishawaka wants no part of.

Dwenger can do this! They have the discipline it takes in its student athletes, a defensive coordinator who knows how to prepare, and a front 7 who is as good as they come in the northern part of the state. However, the famous quote about playing the flexbone could weigh heavy on the minds of Dwenger fans come late fourth quarter on Friday night, “you can’t prepare in a week to practice against what we have perfected all year”. The flexbone is unique, the flexbone is tricky, and the flexbone can make you want to pull your hair out as a fan or a coach or a player.

This however isn’t any old flexbone, this is “BART BALL!”

Kevin Merz played quarterback for Bishop Dwenger in the mid-2000s. His coaching career has included serving as the offensive coordinator under Ryan Hall at North Side, where the Redskins played Mishawaka four times from 2011-2014.

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