BY ROB LAPLANTE
To say the Elk River football team’s offense is predictable is an understatement. For years the offense has relied on the constant ground game that features trickery and deceptiveness.
The St. Michael-Albertville football team is anything but tricky. All season long the Knights have relied on smash mouth football thanks to a bruising offensive and defensive line that dominates both sides of the ground game.
After scoring 104 points in two playoff wins, the Elks were coming off a record-setting performance from running back Denis Bardashevskiy, who set a school record with 370 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a 53-42 playoff win against Rogers. After the win, Rogers head coach Marc Franz said his players had trouble all game finding the ball.
The Knights defense passed the first test. They held the Elks to a three-and-out on the game’s opening possession.
“They’ve (Elk River) had one formation in two years,” said STMA head coach Jared Essler. “That’s who they are, but we were prepared for it.”
Thanks to a sophomore Jacob Moran’s interception and a couple some sloppy punts that were meant to stay away from junior punt returner Dallas Freeman, STMA won the field position battle for most the first quarter.
The Knights took a 3-0 first-quarter lead on a 28-yard field goal from senior kicker Justin McLain. Despite having great field position, STMA could only settle for the three points in the opening 24 minutes of play.
“It was very disappointing,” said senior quarterback Cole Krutzig, who finished the game with an uncharacteristic 28 passing yards and minus-23 rushing yards. “We had great field position from our defense and couldn’t capitalize on that. We just couldn’t make the big plays.”
Krutzig was coming off an injury he suffered early in the game in a 10-0 win last Saturday at Monticello. He pointed out after the game that the injury was not an excuse for the lack of offense.
“My body was feeling great, I just couldn’t make the plays,” he said. “Elk River was bringing a lot of pressure that we haven’t seen all season. They tried keeping me in the pocket and they did really well with that.”
As the first quarter was winding down, Bardashevskiy busted loose down the left side for a 90-yard TD score, giving the Elks a 6-3 lead. The tailback from Russia finished the game with 142 yards on the ground and has 1,835 rushing yards for the season.
After the score, they successfully recovered an onside kick, which later added to a second quarter field goal and a 9-3 halftime lead.
“Special teams hurt us,” Essler said. “They recovered an onside kick, faked a punt successfully and we fumble a punt which hurt us. They were good on defense. They were playing press man, so they took away our short quick stuff. They were blitzing and were able to get some pressure on our quarterback.”
Special teams came into play again after an Erik Johnson punt was returned by Elk River’s Terry Hadden down to the Knights 20-yard line and quarterback Austin Larson would eventually score from 15-yards out, giving the Elks a 17-3 lead.
The Knights responded in the third quarter with their best drive of the game. Junior tailback Chris Kartes had his best series, after a couple big first-down runs. Kartes finished the game with 16 carries for 89 yards on the ground.
The series was capped off with a 2-yard plunge into the end zone from senior fullback Bennie Wilson. After Wilson and the Knights pulled to 17-10, STMA was pinned at its own 2-yard line and on the opening play of the drive, Krutzig was picked off at the line of scrimmage by Alec Plaisted, who intercepted a quick hit attempt.
The Elks iced the game with a 5-yard TD run from Nick Johnson, making the score 24-10.
“Defensively, I thought we played pretty damn well,” Essler said. “We gave up the 90 yarder. Other than that, they got us off the field a whole bunch of times. But they won the special team’s game and their defense versus our offense. They won two-thirds of the game and that’s the difference.”
The Knights finished the season 7-4 overall and made it to the section championship game for the first time since 2009. Although the Knights finished fourth in the Mississippi 8 conference, Essler said it was still a great season.
“We had pretty high goals for this team,” said Essler, on the Knights being picked to win the M-8 early in the year. “We lost a couple close games that we didn’t quite come through with. But at the end of the year, it didn’t matter what our record was, we had a good team that was right in the thick of it and had a shot at a section championship.”
Krutzig will be one of 29 seniors to graduate. He said it was a fun season and was proud of the team’s strong finish.
“I thought we had a great season,” Krutzig said. “Lot of people didn’t think we would get this far. I’m really proud of all these guys. It would have helped to have those guys that were injured, but a lot of younger guys stepped up when we needed them too and those guys will continue to do well for us.”