Before the season started, Watertown-Mayer football coach Craig Johnson listed Belle Plaine as one of the teams he thought to be among the favorites this season in the Minnesota River Conference. He also added that he hoped his own team would be in the mix as well.
At the time, it may have sounded a bit optimistic for a program that had won only three games in the last three seasons, and had only recently snapped a 21-game losing streak. But it sure doesn’t seem that way anymore.
It’s still early in the season, but if Johnson is right and Belle Plaine is one of the better teams in the conference, Watertown-Mayer made a big statement Friday night. For the second week in a row, the Royals dominated the second half, turning a 14-13 halftime lead into a 34-13 win over Belle Plaine in front of a huge home crowd.
“Going into the year, I thought Belle Plaine would be one of the best team’s in the conference,” said Johnson, whose team improved to 3-0 with the win. “This is definitely a nice win for us against a team that year in and year out is in the top half of the conference.”
Belle Plaine fell to 0-2 in the conference and 1-2 overall with the loss, but both conference losses have come to teams that are still unbeaten. The Tigers lost in Week 2 when Tri City United, another team Johnson indicated could be a favorite in the conference, scored a touchdown in the closing minutes to seal a 14-6 win.
No late heroics were needed for the Royals, however, after they made some halftime adjustments to slow down Belle Plaine’s prolific passing attack. In the first half, Belle Plaine quarterback Jayden Howie completed eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown as his team went into the locker room trailing by just a point, 14-13. But in the second, he completed only four passes for 45 yards — 30 of which came on one play — and was picked off twice by Brett Johnson as the Royals pulled away.
“We went up to jam them at the line of scrimmage and gave safety help over the top,” Johnson said of the halftime adjustments. “I think that was key to cooling them down in the second half.”
Watertown-Mayer failed to move the ball on its first two possession of the second half, but it was a defensive play that seemed to spark life back into the Royals’ offense. Faced with third and 17 at its own 5-yard-line, Howie threw the ball deep but was picked off by Johnson, who returned it to the 19-yard-line. Three plays later, Joe Reinert was in the end zone for the Royals on a 9-yard touchdown run, his second of three on the day, giving the team a 20-13 lead.
Just three plays later, with Belle Plaine threatening after a 30-yard pass down to the Watertown-Mayer 30-yard-line, Johnson came up big again. This time he intercepted a deflected ball off the hands of the Belle Plaine tight end, and it took Watertown-Mayer just six plays to go 90 yards for another score, this time capped by a 31-yard touchdown run from Nick Tschida that gave the Royals a 27-13 lead.
“I thought those were the turning points in the game,” Johnson said of the two interceptions. “It was a 14-13 game into the third quarter. The first gave us good field position and we went down and scored. Then they put a drive together and they were awfully close to red zone, and we got another on a deflection on a nice throw. We went down and scored again, and that was obviously the biggest changing point.”
Reinert added his third touchdown of the game, a four-yarder with 5:42 left in the fourth quarter, to seal the victory for the Royals. Reinert finished with 116 yards on 19 carries, giving him three 100-yard efforts in three games this season. He has 432 yards and nine touchdowns thus far.
But once again, Reinert wasn’t the only one doing damage in the running game for the Royals, who racked up 332 more yards and averaged 6.9 yards per carry as a team. Tschida finished with 93 yards on 11 carries, and Max Zitzloff added 88 yards on 10 carries, including a 10-yarder less than 3 minutes into the game that gave the Royals a 6-0 lead. The Royals have run for 1,006 yards and 16 touchdowns through three games, compared to just 957 rushing yards during the entire regular season last year.
“There’s that triple-headed monster,” Johnson said. “It’s hard (for opponents) to say we’re going to take this guy out of game. If they start crashing down on the fullback dive, now you have Tschida and Reinert on the perimeter. It’s hard to stop all three.”
Johnson said the team’s success running the ball this season starts with his quarterback and the offensive line.
“We run the veer, and the veer is a read,” Johnson said. “The guy making the decisions and pulling the pin is our quarterback, Nick Tschida. … He’s making good decisions, and the line is coming off the ball.”
Tschida was also 4-for-9 for 44 yards through the air, and his 29-yard pass to Luke Sandquist on the final play of the first half left the Royals just short of an even bigger halftime lead when Sandquist was dragged down at the 3-yard line.
Tschida also led the Royals with seven tackles, while Austin Torres made six, including three for a loss. Sandquist, Jesse Bushman and Logan Cooper had five apeice.
The Royals will look to keep their perfect season alive Friday night when they hit the road again for the third time in four games to open the season. The Royals will travel to take on LeSueuer-Henderson, a team that is 1-2 overall and 1-1 in the conference. However, the Giants are coming off a tough 9-7 loss to Mayer Lutheran, which also sits at 3-0 and atop the conference standings with Watertown-Mayer and Tri City United.
“They run a lot of shotgun spread type of stuff,” Johnson said of LSH. “They don’t seem overly big, but they have a few kids that can run. It will be another challenge going up against a shotgun team and all the trinkets that go with that. Hopefully we’ll maintain that rushing edge we’ve had through the first three games and control the ball.”
Belle Plaine 13
BP 7 6 0 0 13
WM 14 0 6 14 34
WM – Max Zitzloff 10 run (kick failed)
BP – Jordan Johnson 2 run (Cameron Kiehr kick)
WM – Joe Reinert 1 run (Mark Sandquist pass from Nick Tschida
BP – L Narveson 8 pass from J. Howie (kick failed)
WM – Reinert 9 run (pass failed)
WM – Tshida 30 run (Jesse Bushman kick)
WM – Reinert 4 run (Bushman kick)
Passing: WM — Nick Tshida 4-9-0-51; BP — Jayden Howie 12-25-2-154, TD
Receiving: WM — Luke Sandquist 1-28; Hunter Hulley 1-12; Mark Sandquist 1-9; Max Zitzloff 1-2; BP — Nick Eliason 6-78; Luke Narveson 4-63, TD; Zach Juaire 2-13
Rushing: WM — Joe Reinert 19-116, 3 TD; Tschida 11-93, TD; Zitzloff 10-88, TD; Jesse Bushman 2-14; Logan Cooper 2-12; Mike Hetrick 3-7; Aaron Sweeney 1-2; BP — Dillon Haefner 12-52; Jordan Johnson 9-17, TD; Juaire, 2-8; Eliason 1-6; Howie 4-6
Tackles: Tschida 7, Austin Torres 6; L. Sandquist 5; Cooper 5; Bushman 5Hetrick 4; Zitzloff 4; Brett Johnson 3; P.J. Hangartner 3; Ryne Alger 2; Jon Ernst 2; Nick Burns 2; Justin Lawrence 2; Jack Nolan 2; Hulley 2; Reinert 1; Matt Pysick 1; Bill Stauffer 1
Interceptions: Brett Johnson 2
TFL: Torres 3; Lawrence 1; L. Sandquist 1