Jays? second-half drives lock up playoff possibility
Just one week after the coach-described worst game of the Tom Tourtillott era in Merrill, the Bluejay football team roared back to a convincing, playoff-eligibility clinching 28-7 triumph over Wausau West.
“I thought it was the best we played as a team all season,” Tourtillott said. “We had a little adversity early, but our kids stayed together as a team. One of the things we talked about before the game was we wanted to be completely unified and that nothing could break us apart.”
If the Bluejays take down struggling D.C. Everest (1-4, 2-5) in Thursday’s regular season closer, they could even earn a home playoff opener due to their three non-conference victories.
“This one makes us playoff eligible, which is great, but this week is huge,” Tourtillott said. “A win gives us a chance to have a home game. Who wants to travel on Tuesday night?
“But Everest is a good football team with a lot of history and tradition, and they will be ready to play.”
Merrill weathered an early penalty fiasco that turned 1st-and-goal at the 7 into 2nd-and-goal at the 47 and a West 50-yard run after an interception. After the Warriors missed a 20-yard field goal, the Jays mounted an 8-play drive the length of the field. The Jays celebrated the return of quarterback/linebacker Sam Arneson-the UW-Wisconsin recruit who sat out the SPASH game with a shoulder injury-when he blasted 43 yards up the middle for a touchdown with 8:35 left in the half.
“That was a great run,” Tourtillott said. “Guys were bouncing off of him.”
One play after a hold negated a West 80-yard touchdown run, Ray Paul picked off a pass and took it to the Warrior 25. In three plays, Arneson blasted for 11 yards, fell on a fumbled snap, then tossed a quick screen to Matt Woller who raced 12 yards for the TD with 3:16 remaining.
West could have folded, but instead forged three double-digit plays before a 32-yard scoring strike to Nate Kiel out of the no-huddle with just 1:16 to go to intermission.
“To West’s credit, they scored right before the half” Tourtillott said. “But we went in and talked about being unified and having fun. Talking to the captains we realized maybe I was adding too much stress and that we just needed to have a little fun, and we did.”
Two quarters of joyful domination, to be exact.
West reached the Merrill 29 on the opening drive of the second half, but heavy pressure-including a sack by Mitch Grabko and Michael Koppelman on third down-forced a punt. The Jays then marched 80 yards on 14 plays, chewing up all but :26 of the third quarter. Woller made a one-handed grab of Kyle Kubichek’s halfback option pass-while drawing an interference penalty-for a 25-yard touchdown.
Woller also came up with a 9-yard catch to close out a 14-play, 66-yard push that took the clock down to just 2:40 and made it 28-7.
“For a receiver to have three touchdowns, that’s pretty special,” Tourtillott said.
Merrill held a 352-243 advantage in offense, holding West to 127 rushing and quarterback Travis Schertz to 8-of-17 passing for 116 yards.
“Our pass defense was greatly improved because that West kid is a great quarterback,” Tourtillott said. “Our defensive line, especially Brandon Folta and Mitch Grabko, put more pressure on the quarterback, and we had much improved coverage from Kubichek, (Dylan) Koss, Paul and (Jordan) Burton.
“I was also very pleased with the way our offensive line-Matt Haffemann, Nick Leskey, Andy Bloch, Alex Ruge, Grant Collins-and fullback Michael Ball were knocking people off the ball.”
The Jays pounded out 246 rushing yards from Arneson (23-123), Kubichek (15-74), Koss (7-31) and Ball (5-18). Arneson completed 8-of-13 for 81 yards and Kubi was 1-of-1 for 25. Woller (6-61), Alex Cordova (2-30) and Kubi (1-15) hauled them in.
The defense was paced by Arneson (6 s, 1 a), Folta (4 s, 2 a, 1/2 sa), Zach Ament (4 s, 1 a, 1 TFL), Paul (3 s, 1 a, 1 int.), Grabko (2 s, 2 a, 1 TFL, 1-1/2 sa), Koppelman (1 s, 2 a, 1-1/2 sa), Matt Thistle (1 s, 1 a, 1/2 sa) and Burton (1 int.).