For the first half of Friday’s football game in Rhinelander, the Bluejays shot themselves in the foot.
In the third quarter, they sharpened their aim.
Putting the three first-half turnovers firmly in the past, Merrill drove for three touchdowns in the third quarter to take a 22-0 lead, then topped it off with another score in the fourth for a 28-0 triumph to improve to 2-0 on the season.
“There was a challenge thrown out by the team (at halftime), that they needed to play better,” MHS coach Tom Tourtillott said. “I was happy with the way the kids responded.
“Tony Dungy once said, ‘Whatever it takes, no excuses, no mistakes, do what we do.’ The kids have to perform, and they did.
“The key was we learned a great deal. A high school season is very short. If on any play you’re not giving your very best, you can never have that play back. I think we learned a sense of urgency.”
The Merrill team that fumbled four times and lost three in the first half disappeared after the break. The Jays took nearly 5:00 off the clock while driving the length of the field, capping it with a 16-yard pass from Sam Arneson to Matt Woller. Arneson ran for a two-point conversion and the score was 8-0.
Merrill struck quickly when it got the ball back, scoring on a 43-yard completion to a wide-open Alex Cordova with 2:34 to go. After a fast Hodag three-and-out, Arneson drilled a 31-yard pass to Justin Bloch as the third quarter ended. Cordova’s two PAT kicks made it 22-0.
“We gave Sam very good protection, but if the original routes are covered, he scrambles a little bit and that definitely puts pressure on a defense,” Tourtillott said.
Merrill was good for one more TD drive, and this time Kyle Kubichek rushed 26 yards for the score. Kubi finished with 61 yards on 10 carries, the same Arneson picked up in 12. Michael Ball gained 74 on 7, Austin Voigt had 38 on 9 and Coty Rajek had 11 on 3.
“It was running back by committee,” Tourtillott said. “I was pleased we were balanced. Michael Ball did an outstanding job at fullback running the trap.”
Merrill finished with 266 rushing yards and 189 passing.
Arneson completed 10-of-13 passes, with Woller (5-97), Cordova (2-52) and Bloch (1-31) picking up the bulk.
We give a lot for a high school defense to defend,” Tourtillott said. “We can be double tight and a full backfield to empty backfield with a shotgun.
“I was very pleased with the play of (linemen) Matt Haffemann, Nick Leskey and Andy Block. Matt Woller again proves to be a force to be reckoned with as a receiver.”
Rhinelander picked up just 97 yards on 39 rushes (2.5 ypc), and punted seven times to Merrill’s one. The Hodags were 0-3 in passing.
“I was very happy with the way we responded defensively,” Tourtillott said. “I think they had 16 yards in the second half. Brandon Folta and Matt Thistle did a very nice job on defense.”
Arneson paced the Jay defense with 7 solos, 3 assists and a TFL. Folta (4 s, 2 a, 1 sack), Thistle (3 s, 3 a) and Mitch Grabko (3 s, 1 a, 1 TFL, 1 FR) backed him up.
MHS limited the Hodags’ leading rushers Alex Henkel, Kyle Comer and Nate Schmidt to 29, 27 and 25 yards respectively.