When a high school football team is 2-4, the idea of making the playoffs is usually something of an afterthought.
But it's certainly on the minds of the 2-4 Cardinals.
While things haven't gone the way Newton or its fans would have liked so far through six games, the team still is very much alive in the playoff picture with two district games remaining. The Cardinals' 17-7 win over Dallas Center-Grimes last Friday evened their Class 3A District 4 record at 2-2, which is the only record that matters in terms of whose season ends on Oct. 19 and who gets to keep playing at least one more week.
Newton's first two games — a 42-12 loss to Norwalk and 12-6 loss to Knoxville — certainly weren't pretty to watch, but they have no bearing on the team's postseason hopes.
Friday's game at No. 8 Adel-DeSoto-Minburn is another non-district game. After that, The Cardinals have two definitely winnable district games — at home vs. Saydel (0-7, 0-4) and then at Ballard (2-4, 1-2). The simplest way for Newton to make the playoffs is to win both those games. If it does, it would finish 4-2 in the league and finish no worse than fourth place, and could very well finish third. South Tama (5-1, 3-1) is currently third, but the Cardinals upset the Trojans back on Sept. 14, and South Tama still has to play No. 5 Boone (6-0, 3-0) and No. 4 Grinnell (6-0, 3-0).
Four teams from each district make the playoffs. Grinnell and Boone are essentially locks, while Saydel and DCG are essentially out. That leaves three teams — South Tama, Newton and Ballard — to contend for the other two spots. And since Ballard has already lost to South Tama, it means the fourth spot in all likelihood will come down to the Cardinals and Ballard. And wouldn't you know it, they meet in the last week of the regular season on Oct. 19, which could turn out to be a playoff game in itself.
In fact, Newton could still make the playoffs even with a loss to Saydel, as long as it beats Ballard.
"We haven't made the playoffs since 2007, and that's our goal," Cardinals senior Collin Reynolds said after last Friday's win. "If we beat Saydel and Ballard, we're in."
Reynolds — the school's all-time career receptions and yardage leader — is currently second in 3A in receiving yards with 481.
Newton has missed the playoffs by a single game in each of the past two seasons, finishing in fifth place in the league. They missed out in 2010 despite going 4-3 in district play. Last year was even more agonizing as the Cards started the season 4-1 overall, but lost their last three games. Last season ended with Newton's 47-yard game-winning field goal attempt falling just short on the final play of regulation at Carlisle.
Though Friday's game doesn't factor into the postseason picture and is against a top-knotch opponent, that doesn't mean it's a throwaway game for Newton. With the final third of the season about to start, the last thing the Cardinals want is to enter those two pivotal district games on the heels of a demoralizing loss.
"This week's non-district, but it's not an off-week," Reynolds said. "We need to play well and keep our offense going so we're ready for Saydel on Senior Night."
Of course, it doesn't help that Newton's Friday opponent is one of the best in the state. ADM (5-1) enters the game ranked eighth in 3A — marking the fourth top-8 team the Cards will have faced this season.
The Tigers reached the state semifinals last year, and many thought they were destined for a down 2012 after they graduated all-state quarterback Gavin Glenn, 89 percent of their rushing yardage and 79 percent of their receiving production.
You won't find a team with better offensive balance than the Tigers. They are sixth in 3A in both passing and rushing yards, and lead the state in total yardage. They average 450 yards of offense per game, with 184 through the air and 266 on the ground.
Senior quarterback Kyle Herrick has completed 53.7 percent of his passes for 1,105 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.
But ADM's offense runs through senior running back Jordan Grove. He leads all of 3A with 1,414 rushing yards, has scored 14 TDs and has a staggering 9.2 yards-per-carry average. In last year's state semifinal loss to eventual champion Union of LaPorte City, Grove tore his ACL and MCL, leading to surgery last December. He certainly hasn't shown any ill effects from it. The Tigers suffered their first loss of the season last week, 28-27 at No. 15 Atlantic, but Grove had a monster game by rushing 39 times for 316 yards and two touchdowns.
Grove can also make big plays catching the ball. He has only 12 receptions so far this season, but he's racked up 324 yards and five touchdowns. With 1,738 total yards of offense through six games, he's averaging 290 a game — 64 percent of ADM's total production.