The St. Michael-Albertville Knights, kings of Section 6-5A for the second straight season and into the State 5A semifinals also for the second year in a row, will travel to Eden Prairie on Saturday to tackle the Mankato West Scarlet at 6 p.m. in the Eagles’ home stadium.
For the Knights, it’s the latest on a the road of very tough challenges. No team in Class 5A, under the current system, has knocked off the N0. 3, No. 2 and No. 1 team in the state. The Knights have already done that, and will face another team that was top-ranked at one point in the season (West was N0. 1 in the AP poll on Oct. 15)
After dumping No. 2 Rogers to close out the regular season, STMA knocked off Elk River (top-ranked at the time, according to QRF score) in the Section 6-5A championship. Bemidji, in fact, was ranked No. 3. And West, to their credit, was top ranked in 5A heading into the final game of the season, when the Scarlet lost to John Marshall of Rochester.
That is the tape the Knights will have to study hardest. West averages more than 50 points per game, thanks, mostly, to blowouts over programs like Albert Lea, Rochester Mayo and Owatonna (who regressed after beating STMA in the semis last year).
There will be two keys to the game – St. Michael-Albertville’s offense has to dominate the way it did all night against Elk River, and the second half versus Bemidji. West relies heavily on its defense to set up short fields for the offense.
Then, they’ll have to slow down quarterback Ryan Schlichte, who is headed to nearby MSU-Mankato for his collegiate career. Schlichte had four touchdown passes in the first half (three throwing) against Bloomington Jefferson in a lopsided quarterfinal win.
To date, the Knights have been spectacular at bottling up standout players. Though Gunnar Bloom and Zach Ernst were able to score points (Ernst late, after his team was down 31-0), they didn’t have the dominant, breakout games they put up during the regular season. And Bemidji’s offense, which averaged more than 40 points per game, was shut out in the second half of STMA’s 29-14 quarterfinal win.
“As a unit, we wanted to play our best football at the end, and it’s been amazing to see guys come together like this,” said standout linebacker Tyler Berg. “We don’t worry about one guy. We worry about staying in our lanes, covering the field and making plays.”
Consider this – since falling down 21-7 to Rogers in the second half of that final regular season game, the Knights’ defense has given up 33 points in 13 quarters of play. Twelve of those – both Ernst touchdowns – were when STMA held a 31-0 lead. Add in the Monticello passing touchdown in the Section Semi, which was a blown play when a defender fell on the tackle, and that’s 21 of those 33 points.
“They’ve stepped up, there’s no questions,” said head coach Jared Essler. “What’s fun is each week is a new challenge, and you enjoy it when you get by the challenge in front of you, but pretty soon there’s a new one. It’s the best time of year for playing your best football.”
Things to Watch:
• Weather – the forecast for Saturday calls for a slight chance of snow, but no wind. Both teams should be able to pass the ball. But it will be cold. Temps by 6 p.m. could plummet into the single digits.
• The Spread – West runs a true, spread offense, much like what fans would see on many college teams. Schlichte will have opportunities to run or pass. It’s doubtful, though, he’s seen a linebacking corps like STMA’s, led by Berg. And the STMA secondary lives by the “bend, but don’t break” motto, making huge plays in the red zone, like Jake Moran’s late interception.
• The running game – If Tyler Hayes and Jordan Joseph, along with a few keepers on the read by quarterback Jackson Greenwaldt, can keep the chains moving, STMA won’t fall into the same trap Jefferson did, playing uphill the entire game. West racked up just 150 yards passing but scored five touchdowns through the air. It was mostly because of field position.
• Turf – Flat out, it’s going to be frozen carpet. Footing will be a challenge, and hard hits will be tougher to recover from.