The truth of that old saw became apparent once again after LaCrosse Central dashed away with Friday’s 42-21 victory at Jay Stadium. The Red Raiders improved to 6-2, while Merrill fell to 5-3.
“They were faster than we expected,” MHS coach Nick Sturm said. “They could sure move.
“We knew they’d be a quality football team. After watching the film, there are some things we can correct. Who knows, we may play them again (in the playoffs). If we do, we’ll get back on it and see what happens. Every week we try to take away from the game the opportunities of what we could do better.
“I think defensively, we could take away diagnosing a couple of things and working on getting off blocks better on the perimeter. Any time you face something unconventional, you do better the second time you see it.”
The Bluejays struggled with their passing game on the breezy night, with a couple of underthrows from quarterback Nick Peterson to tall, speedy wide receiver Jake Anderson leading to interceptions, one a likely 79-yard touchdown had it been completed. Peterson ended up with one completion for a five yard loss, although Chaz Mootz did complete an 11-yard pass to Alex Zettler.
But Merrill’s running game was able to pile up 307 yards.
“Offensively, just a couple of key blocks kept us from big plays,” Strum said. “We had one or two guys get injured and we had to put in someone with less experience.
“We left a couple of touchdowns on the table. That’s a little bit of discipline and focus, down in and down out. We get them and it’s a good ballgame.”
Central countered with 376 on the ground and 390 total.
“We started off pretty slow defensively, but the kids battled and kept going,” Sturm said.
He agreed that Ben Thornton, who compiled 151 yards on just eight carries, and Lamont Murphy, with 164 on 16, were legitimate runnings backs.
“(Thornton) is pretty explosive and (Murphy) came into the game averaging nine yards a carry on the option,” he said. “And their quarterback (Mitchell Johnson-Martin) is the real deal, too. They have three very skilled kids.”
Thornton was generously listed at 155 pounds, although he won the state wrestling championship at 106 pounds in 2012 and was second at 113 in February. His size belies his burst, however, as he ripped off TD runs of 62, 15 yards, along with blasting towering punts.
The Bluejays actually led 7-6 with 1:30 left in the first quarter after a 71-yard drive. Peterson picked up 31 yards on a fake punt on 4th-and-5, and Mason Reinhardt capped it with a six-yard burst.Peterson’s kick gave Merrill its only lead of the game. Murphy had opened with an 8-yard scoring burst less than two minutes into the game, although the Jays stopped his two-point attempt.
But four plays later, the last of the first quarter, Thornton took a pitch right, cut back and sprinted 62 yards for a score. A Johnson-Martin keeper made it 14-7.
Thornton helped make it 21-7 with a 15-yard scamper with 7:32 left in the half. To add insult, Tyler Schmidt was injured on the play.
Two plays later, Nick Hoffmann dashed left with a pitch, broke a tackle 60 yards downfield, and scored from 80 yards out The 21-14 difference held to halftime.
Central pushed it to 28-14 on a 50-yard Murphy run just 3:37 into the second half.
Central converted an interception into points on the first play of the fourth quarter, on a 27-yard reception by Max Hether. Thornton made it 42-14 with a 7-yard sprint to the corner on fourth down.
After the teams substituted liberally with 5:00 left, the Jays came up with a stop and drove 75 yards for a score. Trey Stevenson scampered the final 32 yards with just :32 left.
“(The second string) did a very nice job,” Strum said. “A number of kids did very well.”
Hoffmann (8-109), Peterson (9-76), Trey Stevenson (3-38), Klug (9-30), Reinhardt (9-28), Wyatt Strombom (3-19) and Lucas Lee (1-7) powered the MHS rush attack.
The defense was paced by Schmidt (7 solos, 3 assists, 3 TFL); Ben Hintze (8 S, 6 A); Dustin Dengel (5 S, 1 A); Ty Grunenwald (4 S, 2 A); Matt Rekowski (2 S, 3 A, 1 TFL); Gabe Nelles (2 S, 3 A); Mootz (2 S, 2 A); Brandon Bartz (2 S, 1 A); and Brian Stockowitz (2 S).
The Bluejays (4-1 GNC, 5-3 overall) will close out the regular season at Lakeland (2-3, 2-6) on Friday. The playoffs will start the following Friday. Merrill has qualified for the postseason, but the playoff brackets have not yet been determined.
“Lakeland has improved as the year’s gone on,” Sturm said. “They’re a solid team and we’re going to have to play well.”