by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
This should be a game the kids will remember for the rest of their lives, the Elk River football coach predicted, as his team looked forward to hosting their unbeaten, high-flying neighbors, the Rogers Royals, on Friday night.
Elk fans could only hope the game would be as memorable as Steve Hamilton anticipated. But it turned out to be as dramatic a prep football game as you’ll ever see — and as a bonus, the Elks won on the final play, 17-14, on Austin Larson’s 37-yard field goal.
“This is very emotional. We’ve had a long time waiting for a game like this, and it was great to come through,” said senior defensive end Matt Madsen amid delirious celebrating after the game at Jerry Schempf Field. “Unbelievable. Best memory of my high school career so far.”
The Elks rallied from a 14-0 halftime deficit and handed Rogers its first loss of 2011, leaving the two squads tied for first place in the Mississippi 8 with one week left. They snapped a 15-game conference win streak by the Royals that included a 55-0 whipping of the Elks last year.
“Man, this is big,” said Hamilton. “This is a great Rogers team and I am so proud of these kids. From where we were last year, to where we are now, it’s just awesome. But we’ve still got to finish this — on Wednesday.”
Both teams are 6-1 overall and 5-1 in the Mississippi 8, heading into next Wednesday’s finale’s when the Elks host St. Michael-Albertville (5-2) and Rogers hosts Cambridge Isanti (1-6).
“We had a long talk at halftime, that we’ve gotta get this together,” said Mattson, who had one of the Elks’ two sacks. “This is our last time playing Rogers and we had to get it done, and we came out and we did it.”
The Elks will return to their former conference, the Northwest Suburban, next year, after two years in the Mississippi 8, meaning there won’t be regular-season opportunity again for a dream matchup like this one which drew a massive crowd, grandstands on both sides packed with fans and hundreds more standing at the fence. On the other hand they’ll be in the same section next year so there could be a playoff matchup.
“If this was Park Center, do you think there’d be a crowd like this?” asked former Elk coach Terry McLean, expressing regret that the series could not continue, while the thousands of fans were settling into place before the kickoff.
It was a crushing loss for Rogers, which helped out the Elks with three unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties, two botched kickoff returns that pinned them against their own goal line, and a crucial roughing-the-punter penalty.
“Give all the credit to Elk River,” said Rogers coach Marc Franz. “They played a whale of a football game. They should be celebrating this victory. They earned it. They out-executed us over four quarters.”
There are consolations for the Royals – they, too, got to play in a terrific football game that drew metro-wide attention, and they still share first place with a chance to be co- or outright champs, thanks to Elk River’s upset loss to Becker two weeks ago.
“We are going to learn from this. We are going to be better because of it,” said Franz. “You can learn a lot more from a loss than a win. Winning sugar-coats things. There’s a lot of football left to be played, and we will take a hard look at it tomorrow and we’ll get better because of it.”
The field goal by Larson came on his second chance to break the 14-14 tie. He had an attempt blocked with 3:30 left, by either Frank Tousignant or Kyle Williams, both of whom busted through.
The Elks defense held, forcing a punt, but the Elks had to punt it back with 45 seconds left. But Rogers, rushing hard for a block, was flagged for roughing Alex Hoffman.
The Elks were back in business on the Royals’ 40 with 40 seconds left. They reached the 20 with :07 left when Corey Collins hit a diving Jordan Meyer for an 11-yard gain — the Elks first pass completion in three games.
That gave Larson the opportunity for his second last-second game-winner of the season; he got one to beat Moorhead 31-29 on Sept. 16.
Kicking from the left hash mark, and bucking a brisk crosswind, the 6-foot, 180-pound sophomore launched a high, floating kick that stayed up for several seconds before descending just barely over the crossbar.
“I was so nervous. Way more nervous that at Moorhead,” said Larson. “:When it went through, I was like “Wow. I can’t believe I just did that.”
What was he thinking?
“I was just hoping we could pick up the blitz from the side. I saw they were coming on, like the last time. There was a wind I was going against, so I was worried about that, too. I kicked it pretty hard.”
The field goal set off a thunderous ovation that lasted several minutes. The celebration culminated with students flooding the field after the post-game huddles, the kind of scene that hasn’t been witnessed in Elk River for many years.
It was a crowning moment in this turnaround season, giving the Elks one more win than they had in the previous five seasons combined.
This marked the first time since the Prep Bowl year of 1990 that Elk River has played in a game with conference championship implications.
And it didn’t start well for the Elks as Rogers led 14-0 at the half on a 25-yard touchdown run by quarterback Matt Weber and a 30-yard touchdown run by Nate Roehl, the latter of which came one play after the Elks went for it on 4th-and-three and got stopped.
Weber’s running — seven carries for 74 yards, except for two sacks that reduced him officially to 9-for-58 — was the Royals best weapon. The Elks contained the Royal running backs for the most part.
The second half had a disastrous start for Rogers, as they mishandled two kickoffs in the first five minutes, leading to 14 Elk points.
“With the wind, it was hard to judge the kicks,” said Elk special teams coach Chad Baldin. “We told Austin to drive it down there as deep as you can, and we were thinking we’d kick into the end zone. But he line-drived them, a little more like a knuckleball, and that was hard for them to handle. So we told him next time, do it the same! Keep going with what works.”
Rogers bobbled the opening kickoff of the half, and fell on the ball at the five. Four plays later, Elk River’s Alec Plaisted blocked a Rogers punt, perching the Elks on the three-yard line. Dylan Chambers scored from the one on third down.
Rogers stopped a PAT run but was right back in trouble when Larson’s kickoff glanced off Jack McGuire’s shin and out of bounds at the 10.
Elk River’s Terry Hadden intercepted a Weber pass on third down, giving the Elks the ball at the 30. Elk sophomore fullback Michael Larkins dashed 25 yards for a touchdown around right end, then added a two-point conversion run off tackle, tying the score at 14-14, with 5:15 left in the third quarter.
That’s how it stayed until the final play of the game.
Both defenses were superb, as Elk River had been averaging 38 points per game and Rogers 33 points per game. This game was largely a defensive tussle.
For Rogers, linebacker Clay LeVasseur was all over the field making 22 tackles (16 solo). Linebacker Austin Derouin made 14 tackles (12 solo) and lineman Cyrus Biah 14 tackles (six solo) with one sack.
The Elks limited Rogers to 154 rushing yards and 45 passing, a total of 199 yards. Linebacker Bryan Edwards made 19 tackles (10 solo). Making seven each were Jori Lubinski and Madsen, while lineman Matt Hauge made five tackles and two “hurries.”
“The kids played hard. They kept fighting,” said Elk defensive coordinator Brad Olson. “We made sure they lined up right, and we put them in the right place, and they made their reads and stepped up and made the tackles .. .These are kids who bust their butts and do their work, and they do everything we ask them to do.”
Olson mentioned Weber, wide receiver Andrew Smith, and ballcarriers Jack McGuire and Kyle Williams as four “scary” players.
“Every team we’ve played has one or two players we need to be careful of, and try to contain, but Rogers had four guys we needed to contain,” said Olson.”They come at you from so many angles.”
The Elks kept them all in check, except for Weber on runs — including a 31-yard burst on 3rd-and-25 after he’d been sacked — and did pressure Weber on pass plays, limiting him to 4-for-12 with just one nice gainer, 22 yards to Michael Schrieber.
Elk thousand-yard fullback Moses Saygbe was not able to add to his season total of 14 touchdowns but rushed 18 times for 101 yards. The Elks totaled 210 ground yards, 137 below their average. Larkins had 63 in 11 carries.
Chambers, a veteran of last year’s 0-9 campaign, said the victory was exhilarating but not surprising.
“We were pretty confident. We knew we had a pretty good chance to win. I think we should win every game.”
Elk River 17, Rogers 14
Rogers …………. 0 14 0 0 — 14
Elk River ………. 0 0 14 3 — 17
Rog – Matt Weber 25 run (Mitch Grupa kick)
Rog – Nate Roehl 30 run (Grupa kick)
ER – Dylan Chambers 1 run (run stopped)
ER – Michael Larkins 25 run (Larkin run)
ER – Austin Larson 37 field goal
Rushing – Rogers 34-154, Elk River 48-210
Passing – Rogers 4-12-45-1, Elk River 1-3-11-0
Penalties – Rogers 6-70, Elk River 6-50
Turnovers — Rogers 1, Elk River 0
Rushing – Weber 9-58, Roehl 6-41, Kyle Williams 9-25, Grupa 3-17, Jack McGuire 7-13
Passing – Weber 4-12-45-1
Receiving – Michael Schreiber 1-22, Andrew Smith 1-7, Roehl 2-16
Punting – Josh Malin 3-37.3
Tackles (solo-assist) – Clay LeVasseur 16-6, Austiin Derouin 12-2, Cyrus Biah 6-8, Josh Malin 2-6
Sacks – Biah 1
Elk River statistics
Rushing – Moses Saygbe 18-101, Larkins 11-63, Corey Collins 12-34, Chambers 6-8
Passing – Collins 1-3-11-0
Receiving – Derek Cross 1-11
Punting – Alex Hoffman 2-16.5
Interceptions – Terry Hadden 1
Blocked punt – Alec Plaisted
Tackles (solo-assists) – Bryan Edwards 10-9, Jori Lubinski 4-3, Matt Madsen 4-3, Matt Hauge 2-3
QB Sacks – Madsen 1, Garrett Ott 1
QB hurries — Matt Hauge 2
MISSISSIPPI 8 CONFERENCE
Elk River ……………………… 5-1 6-1
Rogers ………………………… 5-1 6-1
St. Michael-Albertville …. 4-2 5-2
Monticello ……………………. 3-3 5-2
Becker …………………………. 2-3 4-3
Buffalo …………………………. 2-4 2-5
Big Lake ………………………. 1-4 3-4
Cambridge-Isanti …………. 1-4 1-6
Elk River 17, Rogers 14
St. Michael-Albertville 14, Monticello 10
Big Lake 36, Milaca 0
Alexandria 16, Buffalo 14
Cambridge-Isanti 34, Becker 6
St. Michael-Albertville at Elk River
Cambridge-Isanti at Rogers
Buffalo at Monticello
Becker at Big Lake