The Merrill football team set out to prove that last week’s blowout win over River Falls was a more legitimate indicator of their talents than the lop-sided loss they took to Superior in Week 1.
The Bluejays prevailed 21-0 in both teams’ GNC opener.
On paper, it would seem as if the upstart Thunderbirds would have a slight edge in heading into the game after jumping out to a 2-0 start. Ironically, the two teams shared striking similarities as the Thunderbirds were also boasting one of the most potent rushing offenses in the conference, thanks to quarterback Sam Kilian and running back Sam Jaeger.
Similar to the Bluejay offense, the T-Bird duo had combined for nearly 500 yards on the ground and four scores, while averaging over 8 yards per carry each.
Call it a residual grudge or just good ‘ol bonafide Bluejay ball, the Jays wasted no time in lighting up the field Friday night as junior fullback Jake Collinsworth took it to the shed on the very first play of the game.
On first and 10 from the Merrill 14, Collinsworth took a Drew Hoff exchange and blasted through a gaping hole created by the digging crew of left guard Collin Zoellner and tackle Jonathan Gruetzmacher.
With the middle of the field sealed off by fellow blockers, Collinsworth broke it outside to the left and found his overdrive gear as he cruised 86 yards for the score without a defender anywhere close.
Connor Kleinschmidt’s extra point set the Jays up 7-0.
The T-Birds once-potent ground game soon found itself sputtering at best, as the Merrill defensive front-seven began causing havoc in the backfield almost immediately. Senior defensive end Elijah Emmer underlined that notion when he picked off a Lakeland pass on 2nd down and returned it to the Thunderbird 45.
After both teams stalled, the Jays took possession and marched down to the Lakeland 20 where Hoff rolled out left, cocked and fired a laser to a wide open Ben Tabor for an 11-yard connection. First and 10 from the Lakeland 9 ended in seven points when ox-like sophomore fullback Braeden Dorn (6’4”, 220), crashed through the heart of the Lakeland defensive front from two yards-out with 44 seconds left in the first.
Trey Seubert’s extra point set the Jays up 14-0.
The tenacious Bluejay defensive tactics continued to harass and create issues with the Thunderbird offense, resulting in fumble forced by defensive tackle Christian Kleinschmidt early in the 2nd quarter and an interception by safety Troy Pike to open the second half.
Despite the turnovers, the Bluejay offense found itself slowed down considerably due to a seemingly renewed Lakeland defensive effort in both the second and third quarters.
Midway through the third quarter, the team, fans and coaches alike found themselves on the wrong side of stunned when the T-Birds suddenly received a bit of help from the game’s officiating crew, in backing up the Merrill offense. In fact, the line judge assigned to the MHS sideline repeatedly flagged Bluejay receivers for neutral zone infractions, refusing to check off with receivers on positioning at the line of scrimmage.
When the Merrill coaching staff inquired as to why the official was calling the infractions, the official was overheard saying he refused to tell the player if he was lined up or not. He could figure it out for himself.
After four consecutive flags and ensuing 5-yard penalties for both lining up in the neutral zone and receivers not being on the line of scrimmage, the Jays found themselves driven as far back as 1st and 30.
Although they would eventually be forced to punt, the Bluejay defense returned to the field and remained as staunch as ever.
Hoff and company put the game away for keeps early in the 4th when Hoff took off on a 14-yard scoring scamper and Seubert’s kick iced the cake.
“I don’t know if I have ever seen a game like that before!” coach Nick Sturm said. “It was pretty unbelievable, but the kids reacted well. They held their composure and kept playing hard as they had all game. I was very proud of how they didn’t allow that to phase them. They just kept at it and pulled out the win.”
The guys not only came out on top in terms of scoring, but in nearly every facet of the game.
Merrill rolled up 380 yards of total offense, led by the workhorse performance of Collinsworth (career high 22 carries for 172 yards, 1 TD).
“Jake is just one tough football player,” Sturm added. “Ultimately, our goal is to take what defense gives us. I think they were trying to key on Drew and shut him down, so we turned to Jake and he did a great job for us.”
Sturm also commends the work up front by the powerful Bluejay front-five.
“You just can’t have a solid run game without a sound offensive line. Once again, our line was assignment sharp and crisp in their assignments. They came off the ball and gave our backs some holes to run through.”
Defensively, the Jays bogged the once-explosive Lakeland offense down to a whole 80 yards of total offense (10 rush/70 pass) and three turnovers.
The Jays host Rhinelander (1-2) at 7 p.m. on Friday.
“It’s great to see the team starting to gel and really come together,” Sturm adds. “We will tweak a few things this week as we get ready for Rhinelander at home on Friday night. It’s always great to play at Jay Stadium.”
LKD: 0 0 0 0 -0
MRL: 14 0 0 7 -21
Passing: Drew Hoff (5/13, 66 yds, 1 INT). Rushing: Jake Collinsworth (22/172, TD); Drew Hoff (13/63); Braeden Dorn (10/46); Nevada Laabs (10/31). Receiving: Ben Tabor (2/27); Austin Reissmann (2/18); Laabs (1/21)
Defense: Jake Collinsworth (5 solo, 2 asst,, PBU; Christian Kleinschmidt (3 solo, asst, TFL, sack); Elijah Emmer (TFL, int); Pike (2 solo, asst, int); Seubert (asst, 2 TFL).