BY ROB LAPLANTE
Prior to its trip to Brainerd, St. Michael-Albertville head coach Jared Essler challenged his already potent defense and special teams to step up their level of play even more.
Ranked third in the conference for fewest points allowed (12.7 per game), Essler sighted one major thing lacking in the team’s first five games – turnovers.
Heading into Saturday afternoon’s tilt with the 4-1 Warriors, STMA ranked last in the Mississippi 8 Conference in creating turnovers. Ironically, it was a nose guard and a bench player creating havoc in a 31-20 victory at Brainerd.
“The coaches told the players earlier in the week that we needed to step up that part of our game,” Essler said. “We only caused three turnovers through the first five weeks. It seems like once you start to get a couple, they seem to come in bunches.”
He wasn’t kidding. STMA forced a fumble on the game’s opening kickoff. That set up the eventual first score of the game when senior Dallas Freeman took a Cole Krutzig handoff and scored from three yards out.
Shortly after, the Knights caused another special team’s turnover, forcing a fumble on a Warriors punt return. That led to a 31-yard touchdown pass from Krutzig to senior wide receiver Brian Ferry.
“Offensively, we did a good job converting when given a short field,” Essler said. “It really turned into a field position game. More often than not, they were forced to go the length of the field on most their drives.”
The Warriors strung together a couple long drives. Prior to the half, they cut the deficit to 14-7, marching the length of the field and running back Connor Gessell eventually scored from two yards out.
The game turned ugly for the Warriors in the middle of the final quarter. A Knights long drive was capped off with a 30-yard field goal from senior kicker Justin McLain.
Moments later, senior nose guard Sean Scharlau picked off an errant throw from Brainerd quarterback Luke Boran. It was the team’s fifth forced turnover in the contest. The interception led to a Bennie Wilson 1-yard TD run, making the score 24-7.
After the Knights kicked off, Boran and the Warriors offense were picked for a third time and it was the sixth Brainerd turnover in the game.
Filling in for injured junior linebacker Joe Kilian, sophomore Jacob Moran picked up his second interception of the contest. This time the Knights returned it 17 yards for a defensive score. The Knights broke open a close game, scoring 17 points in a matter of 1:18 in the final quarter, building the lead to 31-7.
The Warriors would score two late touchdowns, making the score 31-20.
On an afternoon where the defense struggled against the run, Essler said he wasn’t too concerned with the 162 total yards allowed on the ground.
“They are a ball control team and they were able to run it,” Essler said. “Our guys did a great job of coming up with a couple key red zone stops and for the most part, we kept them to second and third and longs most the game.”
The Knights rushed for 197 total yards with junior Chris Kartes and Krutzig leading the way. Kartes finished with 19 carries for 76 yards and Krutzig had 13 attempts for 60 yards.
Senior linebacker Erik Johnson had a big day. He finished with 151 punt return yards and led the team with 14 tackles (10 solo) and one sack. But the story on defense was Moran. He finished with two INT’s, one score and seven solo tackles.
“Moran was awesome,” Essler said. “Brainerd is a quality opponent who is a Class 6A school. This was a great win for us and should help us in our section ratings.”
STMA (4-2 overall) will host Fergus Falls (5-1 overall) in a non-conference game Friday at 7 p.m.