With a share of the Minnesota Conference title on the line last Wednesday night in Watertown, it was difficult to tell exactly what to expect when Mayer Lutheran met Watertown to cap off an unpredictable football season.
On the one hand, Mayer Lutheran’s one loss had come in overtime to Tri City United, a team Watertown-Mayer had just beaten the week before, 35-7. But on the other hand, Watertown-Mayer’s lone loss had come against Sibley East, a team Mayer Lutheran had routed, 43-14.
In the end, Wednesday’s game between the two rivals came down to which team could best take the other out of its own game, and without question, that team was Mayer Lutheran. The Crusaders held Watertown-Mayer to just 28 rushing yards in the game as they pulled out a 21-14 win to finished the regular season with a 6-1 overall record and a 5-1 mark in the MRC, tied with Sibley East for the conference crown. Watertown-Mayer finished the regular season 6-2 overall and 5-2 in the league, tied with Tri City United for third place.
“I thought they played a very good defensive game,” Watertown-Mayer coach Craig Johnson said. “They controlled the line of scrimmage and forced us to do some things we’re not real comfortable in doing. That’s to their credit.”
The Crusaders showed early that it would be tough sledding for the Royals on the ground, holding the Royals to three carries for minus-7 yards on their first possession. The Royals gained two yards before punting on their second possession, and even with a 19-yard run from Max Zitzloff on their third possession, failed again to pick up a first down because of a 5-yard loss on first down, a false start penalty and a 1-yard loss on third-and-1.
Meanwhile, though, Mayer Lutheran looked equally sluggish early, fumbling on its second play of the game and going three-and-out on its second possession. But the Crusaders eventually broke through, stringing together a 5-play, 46-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead. Mayer Lutheran took advantage of a roughing the passer penalty on the first play of the drive, and later got a 35-yard touchdown run from Joel Burfeind to take the lead.
After Watertown-Mayer twice more went three-and-out, Mayer Lutheran added another touchdown with 9:05 left in the first half. A couple of 33-yard pass plays — one from quarterback Jeremiah Grimsley to (Tanner Luebke, and the other for a touchdown to Anthony Gruenhagen — gave the Crusaders a 14-0 lead.
The Royals finally got things going offensively on their next possession, picking up their first first-down on a 46-yard pass from Nick Tschida to Mark Sandquist. A clutch 24-yard pass to Luke Sandquist on fourth-and-15 moved the ball to the 1-yard line, and Tschida followed with a keeper to bring the Royals within 14-6.
However, the Royals wouldn’t gain another first-down until the fourth quarter, and a long touchdown drive on Mayer Lutheran’s opening possession of the second half extended the Crusaders lead. Mayer Lutheran went 73 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 2-yard run from Phil Burfeind to give the Crusaders a 21-6 lead.
Watertown-Mayer eventually got things moving through the passing game in the fourth-quarter, scoring on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Luke Sandquist, but it was too late to make a difference in the final outcome.
“We need to be able to throw the ball a little better,” Johnson said. “We did do good job of that in the fourth quarter. They were in man (coverage) and needed to take advantage of that early in the game, and we were just not able to do that.”
Of course, what the Royals really want to be able to do is run the ball, and the Crusaders simply didn’t let them from the start. The Royals had run for at least 200 yards as a team in every game this season except the loss to Sibley East, but never had much of a chance on Wednesday.
Part of the inability to run could have stemmed from injuries on the offensive line, as well as a knee injury to leading rusher Joey Reinert earlier in the week during practice. Reinert started against Mayer Lutheran, returning the opening kickoff for 42 yards and had one carry for a 3-yard loss, two plays that Johnson said showed him everything he needed to see before pulling Reinert from the game.
“He wanted to go, but we noticed on the kick return, if he was healthy, he might have broke it,” Johnson said. “And then on his one carry, you could tell it was foolish to have him on the field.”
But, while injuries certainly may have played a role, Mayer Lutheran’s defense was the biggest factor.
“They crashed their ends hard and forced us out on the perimeter,” Johnson said. “They have good team speed on defense, and even when you do try to get outside, they’re able to run you down. Looking at film over the course of season, not one team was able to run outside.”
Zitzloff led the Royals with eight carries for 40 yards, but the rest of the team finished with 15 carries for minus-12 yards. Tschida completed 7-of-22 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown, but also had three interceptions. Luke Sandquist caught five passes for 84 yards and a score, and Mark Sandquist had two catches for 53 yards.
For Mayer Lutheran, Joel Burfeind had 90 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and Phil Burfiend had 82 yards and a score on 25 carries. Grimsley was 7-for-17 for 137 yards and a touchdown through the air, while Gruenhagen caught five passes for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Watertown-Mayer opened the playoffs on Tuesday as the No. 2 seed.
Mayer Lutheran 21,
LHS 7 7 7 0 21
W-M 0 6 0 8 14
LHS – Joel Burfeind 35 run (Chad Anenson kick)
LHS – Anthony Gruenhagen 33 pass from Jeremiah Grimsley (Anenson kick)
WM – Nick Tschida 1 run (kick failed)
LHS – Joel Burfeind 1 run (Anenson kick)
WM – Luke Sandquist 20 pass from Tschida (Jesse Bushman run)
Passing: WM – Nick Tschida 7-2-3-137, TD; LHS – Jeremiah Grimsley 7-17-0-124, TD
Rushing: WM – Max Zitzloff 8-40; Jesse Bushman 7-8; Joe Reinert 1-(-3), Tschida 7-(-17); LHS – Joel Burfeind 16-90, TD; Phil Burfeind 25-82, TD; Grimsley 10-35; Nathan Weber 2-13
Receiving: WM – Luke Sandquist 5-84, TD; Mark Sandquist 2-53; LHS – Anthony Gruenhagen 5-79, TD; Tanner Luebke 2-45
Tackles: WM – Austin Torres 13, Bushman 7, Logan cooper 7, Zitzloff 6, Tschida 5, L. Sandquist 5, Jon Ernst 4, Ryne Alger 4, Brett Johnson 4, M. Sandquist 2, David Gallus 2, Ben Hayden 2, PJ Hangartner 2, Nick Burns, Justin Lawrence, Jack Nolan; LHS – Weber 9, Luebke 7, J. Burfeind 7, Grimsley 5, Cole Buttenhoff 5, Taylor Otterstatter 3, Matt Huinker 2, Mason Diedrick 2, P. Burfeind, Gruenhagen, Brandon Wroge
Sacks: LHS – J Burfiend, Gruenhagen
INT: Luebke 3