BY ROB LAPLANTE
Two of last year’s top defensive teams in the Mississippi 8 were on display last Thursday at St. Michael-Albertville to kickoff week one of the 2012 high school football season.
Both defenses lived up to the hype. Not a single offensive play from either team would find the back of the end zone. But a couple costly St. Michael-Albertville errors proved to be the difference, as the visitors from Cambridge-Isanti upset the Knights in an 8-0 shutout win.
With key returning starters on both offense and defense, the Knights were predicted by many to finish first in most pre-season polls. Throw in the fact, its opponent in week one finished last in the conference and finished with a single win all of last year, it appeared STMA was primed to make it four consecutive years with a win to start the season.
Things were going according to plan early. Senior quarterback Cole Krutzig drove the Knights into the red zone on the team’s opening drive of the first quarter. As they lined up with a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, Krutzig and the Knights should have taken a picture, because after the next play, they would only sniff the red zone one other time the rest of the night.
On the ensuing play, a bad snap cost the Knights 12 yards and forced them back to the 20-yard line. While Krutzig recovered the loose ball, the next play resulted in a loss of two more yards on a rush from senior running back Ryan Lyzhoft.
Instead of sending sophomore backup kicker Landon Bridell out for a long field goal attempt and with senior kicker Justin McLain not available, STMA head coach Jared Essler elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 22-yard line. The Knights eventually turned the ball over on downs.
“We would have thought about it,” said Essler, when asked if he would have kicked a field goal with McLain in the lineup. “Still, that would have been a 37-yarder which is a pretty good high school boot.”
The first quarter would end scoreless, but the Bluejackets put together one of their best drives of the game towards the end of the quarter.
Cambridge-Isanti drove into field goal range early in the second quarter, thanks to a couple big runs from running back Chance Laidly. Josh Rouse eventually booted a 31-yard field goal giving the visitors a 3-0 lead – a lead that stood at the half.
Momentum looked as if it may switch into the Knights favor at the start of the third quarter. Holding the Bluejackets to a three-and-out, Cambridge-Isanti was forced to punt, deep inside their own zone. It appeared STMA was bound for great field position. But on the punt, a loose ball was touched and fumbled giving the Bluejackets the ball back.
“I thought that was a big moment in the game,” Essler said. “We need to do a better job of relaying the fire call to get the blockers out of the way. Kind of a little bit of tough luck at the same time because it was a really short punt and that would have really flipped the field for us.”
With Lyzhoft and the running game held in check, STMA was forced to try and rally with its passing game.
The Knights converted on a pair of fourth down conversions in the third quarter. Needing one yard on fourth down, Krutzig rushed for a 3-yard gain to continue the drive. Later that drive, Krutzig converted on another fourth down conversion, this time hooking up for a 15-yard pass completion to senior wide receiver Brian Ferry.
The drive would eventually stall and with 5:05 left in the quarter, Bridell’s 27-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar and kept the score 3-0.
As was the case most the night, the Knights defense responded by forcing another punt. However, a near-perfect punt pinned STMA at its own 2-yard line and on the next play, Krutzig was sacked in his own end zone for a safety, increasing the deficit to 5-0.
“They just kept bringing it,” said senior linebacker/fullback Bennie Wilson. “They caught us on a few plays and their spark just kept catching on.”
Lyzhoft, who rushed for 892 yards in nine games last season, was held to just 20 yards rushing on 16 carries. Senior running back Brendon Poland had three carries for 14 yards.
“We didn’t pick up our blocks and that’s why we couldn’t run the ball,” Wilson said. “We had to go to our passing offense and that just shook our whole game up a bit.”
“We didn’t run the ball the way we needed to,” Essler said. “That kind of made us one dimensional and it’s just hard to win high school games if you can’t run the football.”
With time running out in the fourth quarter, Cambridge-Isanti put together one final drive that resulted in a 36-yard field goal. It gave the Bluejackets a small, but commanding 8-0 lead with only 3:20 left in the game.
With one last drive to try and tie the game, the Knights attempt was killed by a holding call, followed by a sack, forcing the Knights to punt on their final possession of the game.
Senior linebacker Ben Haller led the Knights defense with four solo tackles. Sophomore linebacker Tyler Berg led the team with nine total tackles. Seniors Tyler Berhow, Erik Johnson and Austin Brouillette each had eight.
“Defense played real well,” Essler said. “They hung in there, gave us a shot all night. We just need to be better offensively. We have to be able to run the ball. If you can’t run the ball you’re pretty easy to defend.”
The 0-1 Knights will travel to Duluth East for a 6 p.m. game Friday night against the 1-0 Greyhounds.