by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Five days after the best game he ever played, Elk River quarterback Austin Larson lasted just two snaps on Saturday, leaving with an ankle injury as Elk River dueled Rogers in the section semifinal.
Larson was joined on the sideline early in the second half by his successor Jordan Johnson, also with an ankle injury, which left the QB duties to Clay Elrod for the rest of the game.
Fortunately, all three are talented, poised, experienced athletes, and the Elks offense kept humming throughout in winning the 53-42 shootout at Rogers.
“I don’t know how many offenses there are,” said coach Steve Hamilton, “where you can run your third team quarterback and still move the ball like we did. We didn’t miss a beat. We just kept going.”
The Elks system has little if any passing but depends considerably on the quarterbacks’ ability to camouflage the handoffs. Plus, the QB’s frequently keep the ball and run around the ends.
It made “a huge difference” to have Elrod as the third option, said quarterbacks coach John Pink. Indeed, the Elks trailed 35-27 at the time but stormed back, starting with Elrod’s 26-yard TD run around left end.
Johnson, a senior, started the Elks first six games but suffered knee and ankle injuries on his first run at Armstrong. With 311 yards on 48 carries (6.5 average), he missed the rest of that game and three more.
Larson, junior kicker and halfback, and backup quarterback, played a couple quarters that game before he got banged up, too, and Elrod finished the 51-13 rout.
Elrod, the Elks punter and starting tight end normally, did most of the quarterbacking in a 36-10 loss to unbeaten Osseo and 31-10 win over Park Center.
Larson returned for the playoff opener at Willmar and had spectacular game with 196 yards rushing, three TD’s, a field goal and four XP’s for 25 points.
Against Rogers, he fumbled the ball away on his first snap, then handed off to Denis Bardashevskiy on his fateful second snap. His deception on the handoff to Bardashevkskiy was convincing enough that Larson himself took a hard hit in the backfield while the fleet tailback was zooming through the line on an 81-yard run.
That ended Larson’s day as he sat dejectedly and painfully on the bench and missed all the fun. Johnson, still not 100 percent, went in and ran four times for 26 yards (along with two times sacked trying to pass) before going down. Enter the 6-foot-5 Elrod, and the Elks basketball star (18 ppg last winter) helped the Elks go on a 26-0 run.
“I just tried to do the best I can, like the other two guys,” he said. “Love them, they are great guys, so, just get in there and finish the job they started.”
About his TD run, he recounted, “That was meant to be a run (by a running back) but one of their guys got hold of me. He didn’t think I had the ball, so he let me go. One of my lineman actually knocked him off me, and I took off. That’s what happened.”
Pink has been playing musical chairs as the quarterbacks coach.
“We were trying to get Austin healthy for playoffs, so we sat him the last two (conference games) and that’s where Clay got in and played. Austin was healthy for our playoff game at Willmar and he did well there. Today, Jordan still wasn’t ready, but we felt he was our next best bet. It’s hard for him to run.”
Elrod, said Pink, is a “clutch player” and accustomed to pressure from his role on the basketball team.
What next? Who’ll be calling the signals when the Elks (5-5) take on St. Michael-Albertville (7-3) for the section crown on Friday evening in St. Michael?
Hamilton said after the game he thought Larson will be fine while Johnson, having aggravated his ankle injury, might take longer. And of course there’s also Elrod but you’d rather have your offensive line intact.
What they said after the game
Jordan Meyer, Elks offensive tackle, about why the running offense worked so well, in particular Bardashevskiy with five long TD’s and a school record 370 yards: “First off all, it’s God showing his glory. And second, our offensive line gives him a big hole, and he does his job. He’s great at that. He is fast. Even the refs were saying they were tired (from chasing Bardashevskiy).”
Marc Franz, Rogers coach, about his team’s 7-2 season: “I’ve said all year, we don’t have one great player, we have a bunch of really good players who play together as a team. We are not going to overpower anyone but I love how our kids compete. I loved how we competed today, although obviously we came out on the short end.”
Franz, about the season ending: “The toughest thing is saying goodbye to the seniors at the end of each year. I love to coach football and love to work with the kids, and you get to know them so much better in football than in the classroom. Football is not a game that a lot of people will go on to play after high school, so, you have the finality of it.”
Steve Hamiilton, Elks coach, about facing Rogers, whom they beat 17-16 on a last-second field goal by Larson last year: “We knew Rogers would be tough. Marc does a great job and they are always well-coached. We knew they would be up for it, especially after what happened last year, and we would have to weather the storm at their place, and we did that.”
Hamilton, about the Elks giving up just 10 points in the second half after 32 in the first: “Coach Baldwin and defensive staff made good adjustments at halftime.”