BLUE EARTH - The Blue Earth Area Bucs' defense has limited opposing offenses to the lowest point total per game (9.9) in Class AAA this fall.
The St. Croix Lutheran Crusaders' run-oriented offense has generated the highest scoring average (46.6) per outing in Class AAA this season.
The two extremes will go toe-to-toe in the trenches when the Minnesota Associated Press' No. 2-ranked Bucs (10-0) clash with the No. 3-rated and defending Class AAA state champion Crusaders (9-1) at 6 p.m. today in a state quarterfinal on Lakeville North High School's turf in Lakeville.
STATELY BUCS — Members of the Blue Earth Area Buc football team facing St. Croix Lutheran at 6 p.m. today in the Class AAA state quarterfinals at Lakeville North High School in Lakeville include, front row (l-r): Jacob Peterson, Andy Wigern, Dakota Jahnke, Alex Stewart, Calvin Sanders, Chris Ramos, Trevor Zierke, Carter Hanson, Kysten Zierke, Chance Andrews and John Bosshart. Middle row: Dustin Anderson, Quinn Huisman, Martin Granados, Seth Anderson, Danny Krieger, Greg Claeys, Taylor Olson, Felix Harseim, Micah Twedt, Nick Beattie and Austin Gustafson. Back row: Kellen Jacob, Jacob Pettit, Garrett Christensen, Christian Haugh, Brandyn Olsen, Dallas Barslou, Isaac Darrington, David Franta, Gus Phillips, Brad More and Steven Plocker. Not pictured: Justin Ritter, Brett Nowak and Jared Hassing. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
"Obviously, our defense will face its toughest challenge of the season against an offense that averages nearly 50 points a game," said Blue Earth Area mentor Randy Kuechenmeister. "They run option out of a split-back veer and their offensive linemen really fire off the ball and stick with their blocks well.
"St. Croix's backs run hard, follow their blockers and can break a long one at any time like they did at least four times against Cannon Falls in the section (4) championship last Friday night."
All three members of the Crusaders' high-octane backfield erupted for at least one breakaway sprint of 40-plus yards to help pile up a staggering 496 rushing yards and ignite a 61-21 rout over the Bombers a week ago.
Senior running back Jeremy Sievert, who tops the balanced rushing attack with 720 yards on 94 carries, amassed a game-best 223 yards and three TDs on only 16 totes in the sectional finale. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Sievert broke loose for a 57-yard scamper to complement TD trots of 43 and 50 yards.
But Sievert is only part of St. Croix Lutheran's high-powered ground game as senior quarterback Lincoln Hochmuth opened the Section 4 title tilt's scoring via a 43-yard scramble. The 6-2, 175-pound Hochmuth, who holds the No. 3 rushing spot on the Crusaders' seasonal statistical charts with 608 yards, finished the game with 86 yards and the one TD on only eight carries.
Ironically, despite missing half of the team's games due to a debilitating high ankle sprain, senior standout Jackson Goplen still holds the No. 2 team rushing spot with 633 yards and eight TDs on just 50 totes.
With the 6-1, 180-pound Goplen on the sideline last Friday night, St. Croix Lutheran mentor Carl Lemke utilized 5-11, 215-pound sophomore Trever Koester out of the backfield. Koester has piled up 597 yards and nine TDs in nine games, including 143 yards - including a 51-yard burst - and three six-pointers on 15 carries in the sectional championship game.
"They score a lot of points for a reason - they execute to a T," Kuechenmeister said in reference to a Crusader offense that has generated 4,379 total yards - 3,563 coming on the ground.
Now, senior middle linebacker Carter Hanson and the Bucs' smothering sideline-to-sideline 4-3 defensive unit will look to put the clamps on the Crusaders' three-pronged backfield tonight.
"After watching Blue Earth (Area) on film, we (coaching staff) were definitely impressed with their defense," said Lemke. "All of their players go to the ball well, know how to wrap up (on a tackle) and hit hard.
"It will be a challenge to run against them."
Indeed. Blue Earth Area's defense allowed only one TD and a 2-point conversion during a 29-8 sectional semifinal victory over Fairmont before earning a shutout via a 35-0 rout of Tri-City United during the sectional final last Friday night at Wilson Field in Blue Earth.
The shoulder pad-jarring Hanson tops the Bucs' defense with 96 tackles to complement two fumble recoveries and one interception, while fellow linebacker junior Kysten Zierke has delivered 66 high-impact stops.
Junior safety David Franta and senior safety Isaac Darrington follow next on the tackling charts with 56 and 45 stops, respectively, with both secondary standouts having intercepted two passes each.
But the sure-handed tackling is not limited to the secondary as senior tackle Micah Twedt has chalked up 41 stops and one fumble recovery, while the fleet-footed Gus Phillips has contributed 39 tackles from his end spot. Phillips also leads the Bucs with three fumble recoveries to go with one pick.
But Blue Earth Area is not a one-dimensional team as the Bucs' potent offense has averaged 35.9 points per game on the strength of 3,556 total yards, including 2,687 on the ground.
Zierke, a 6-0, 205-pound wrecking crew at quarterback, proves a triple-threat as he can either hand off, keep it and punish would-be defenders or go to the air.
Zierke tops the maroon-and-gold with 811 yards and 18 TDs on 150 carries, in addition to completing 59 of 123 passes for 860 yards and nine more TDs.
Phillips and Franta have supplied 563 and 477 rushing yards, respectively, and five TDs each, while the hard-working Hanson grinds out tough yards and provides running room via his path-clearing blocks.
The 6-4 Darrington leads the Bucs' receivers with 19 catches for 336 yards and five TDs, while senior split end Dallas Barslou is No. 2 with 10 receptions for 112 yards and one score.
"Offensively, they (the Bucs) have a power running game, but can throw the ball well, too," said Lemke. "Their entire team is physical and their team speed concerns us."
Lemke will turn to junior linebackers Caleb Olson and David Ponath, along with cornerback Dan Mackenthun, to slam the brakes on the Bucs' high-powered offense.
The 6-1, 175-pound Olson paces the Crusaders' 4-4 defensive scheme with 40.5 tackles to go with one fumble recovery, while Mackenthun and Ponath follow next with 39.5 and 37 stops, respectively. Mackenthun leads the secondary with three interceptions, while Ponath has a solo pick.
"We played a perfect game last week against Cannon Falls," said Lemke. "Obviously, the competition gets tougher as you move to a higher level, and we'll have to execute to advance."
Kuechenmeister echoed his coaching counterpart's pre-game outlook.
"It's going to take a very good effort on our part on both sides of the ball in order for us to have the opportunity to win," said Kuechenmeister. "It's like I've said before - they're the state champion until someone beats them.
"They don't beat themselves by making mistakes, and that's huge at this time of the season."
The winner between Blue Earth Area and St. Croix Lutheran will advance to face either No. 5-ranked Perham (9-1) or Esko (8-2) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Metrodome in the AAA state semifinals.