From unknown to unstoppable, Ballard football running back Eli Rouse is tearing through Class 3A
HUXLEY — The first day of October saw the Ballard football team going up against fifth-ranked Nevada at home in a rematch of last year's Class 3A playoff second round.
The Bombers were trailing 7-0 and facing a fourth-and-1 on their own 15-yard line when co-head coaches Kyle Howard and Corey Vespestad took a huge gamble and decided to go for it.
The coaches could have called on experienced junior running back Gabe Christensen.
Or maybe senior quarterback Ashton Hermann.
Or talented receivers Jayden Cattell and Jacob Ihle.
Instead, they called on sophomore running back Eli Rouse.
Rouse had only rushed for 46 yards and one touchdown through Ballard's previous five games. But he had the speed to get to the edge, so it was his time to shine.
"Even though were backed up, that was a risk worth taking at that point," Howard said. "We knew Eli has another gear."
He certainly did on that play.
Rouse got to the outside against one of the best defenses in all of 3A, followed a block by receiver Bryce Haessig and raced 85 yards for a touchdown.
"All I was really thinking about was getting that yard," Rouse said. "The blocking was perfect and I broke it."
Ballard ended up capitalizing on the momentum to go up 13-7 at the half, but Nevada regrouped to dominate the second half and hand the Bombers a 34-13 loss.
Though the Bombers came up short against their rivals, they discovered they had something special in Rouse, who finished with 137 yards rushing.
"It's just phenomenal," Ballard center Caleb Larsen said. "Him being able to step up like he did really meant a lot to everyone."
It meant even more last Friday against North Polk, back at Rich Strouse Field in Huxley.
Ballard went into the big rivalry game without the services of Hermann, who went down in the Nevada game with a partial MCL tear. Junior Luke Hartsook was taking over at quarterback with limited snaps behind center and his coaches wanted to provide him with as much support as possible.
They turned more and more to Rouse as the game progressed.
"Eli definitely took a load off me," Hartsook said. "I think North Polk overcompensated for that."
Rouse ended up carrying the ball 37 times, nearly doubling his workload over the first six games combined.
"Eli was able to get us moving, so we stuck with it and rode him," Howard said. "It worked out well for us.
"He's got a good balance of strength and speed. He's got a good feel for where his lanes are and he runs hard. That's a tough recipe to stop."
Yes, it was. Rouse ended up with a 227 yards and four touchdowns. He helped free up Hartsook to throw two touchdown passes and Ballard rallied from a 35-21 deficit to stun the Comets, 43-42.
"Blocking was great this week," Rouse said. "Running behind it was just great.
"The North Polk defense was hitting really hard. But just having confidence in our offensive line and the receivers blocking was all I really needed."
Larsen said he loves blocking for someone with Rouse's capabilities.
"His vision and his speed stick out," Larsen said. "He's just an all-around great runner with natural, God-given talent."
Hartsook is looking forward to having a full season to team with Rouse in the backfield in 2022.
"This is a big confidence booster coming in here and proving something," Hartsook said. "Me and Eli in the backfield is pretty special knowing with both have another year."
Of course, they still want to see what he can do in the the games Ballard has remaining in 2021, starting this week against former top-10 team Algona at Algona.
"Right now, we're just focused on Algona," Howard said. "We're happy we have guys on the field that are performing. We'll worry about next year, next year."