Coming off two tough losses, it is time to re-group and come together for the Lakeland football team. No doubt they’ll have to do it quick when a trip to Antigo awaits them today.
The Red Robins come into tonight’s game with a 2-2 overall record, but a 2-0 conference record. They come off wins against Ashland (20-0) on Sept. 13 and Merill (28-0) on Sept. 6.
Two shutout wins looks impressive on the resume, but it was anything but that in their first two games, two non-conference games against a couple of small-school state powerhouses.
The Red Robins lost to Amherst (6-42) on Aug. 23 and Stratford (0-55) on Aug. 30. The Red Robins gave up an average of 48.5 points per game in those two contests.
But in conference play, the Red Robins are giving up zero points per game. Quite a difference in their wins and losses. But it may have something to do with their opponent.
“Both (Amherst and Stratford) are ranked in the top two in the state in Division 5 and have legit chances to win state this year,” Lakeland coach Dan Barutha said.
For the fourth game in a row, the Thunderbird defense will be tested on the ground. The Red Robins like to use a variety of running backs, with four players having at least 19 carries.
It begins with Isaac Wickersheim. He has 27 attempts for 176 yards and a touchdown. Then, quarterback Nevin Cornelius has 34 attempts for 175 yards and a touchdown.
“Offensively, they are still Wing-T based, but running from a short pistol backfield with the quarterback this year,” Barutha said. “They put him 2 yards behind the center and he reverse pivots and sells fake handoffs well.”
Connor Kolz leads the team with two touchdowns. He adds to that 14 attempts for 76 yards.
Dylan Matuszewski began the season as the starter but fell to injury. So far, he has 20 attempts for 66 yards and a touchdown.
“They are based in misdirection and if you get caught looking at something other than your assignment and don’t have the consistent eye discipline play in and play out, they can hurt you with long plays by gaining a man advantage,” Barutha said.
Cornelius is 11 of 31 for 176 yards and one touchdown, but has three interceptions.
“They are heavy run but also throw and run the counter well too. Their quarterback is a good player,” Barutha said.
Cornelius’ go-to target has been Alec Hotchkiss, whose tallied eight receptions for 145 yards and a touchdown thus far.
The Thunderbirds are coming off a tough loss in their home opener to Medford, 49-7. They will hit the road again, but it’s something they are quite familiar with. This will be their fourth road game in five total games so far.
Even with an 0-2 conference record, the Thunderbirds still have plenty of teams to play to get back in the standings. Their two losses have come against teams that are a combined 8-0.
“To get back on the winning track, we’ve worked to simplify the offense, identify issues we’ve seen on film and correct them, and create senior-led energy at practice,” Barutha said.
For the Lakeland defense, stopping the run is going to once again be a key to success. Last week, Medford ran for over 330 yards and five touchdowns. The Red Robins will look to do something familiar.
The Lakeland offense needs to step up as well. After scoring 30-plus points in their first two games, the Thunderbirds have only scored 14 total points in their last two contests. “We’ve struggled with our offensive identity the last couple of weeks and we want to get back to our base attack philosophy,”?Barutha said.
It all starts with quarterback Michael Ouimette. In Lakeland’s two wins, Ouimette is averaging 142 rushing yards per game.
In Lakeland’s two losses, Ouimette is averaging 27 rushing yards per game.
Another runner to look out for is senior captain Devan Tessmer. He has 16 attempts for 68 yards and a touchdown this year.
“Devan brings attitude and grit on the field. He definitely plays with his emotions on his sleeve and he’s a tough competitor,” Barutha said. “He holds himself and his teammates to a high standard and he’s tough for us.”
Tessmer ran for tough yards against Medford last week, helping the Thunderbirds to their only touchdown of the night.
“Off the field, Devan has a very high intellect and is a great representation of our program,”?Barutha said. “He displays servant leadership for the program with our community initiatives and is a well-respected player by his peers.”
In addition to offense and defense, special teams will be a factor. Last week, Zach Hayes gave the Thunderbirds a big boost with his 31 yard kickoff return into Medford territory. With a struggling offense, special teams may be able to give them a boost.
It’s a battle of the birds. Thunderbirds vs. Red Robins. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Schofield Stadium in Antigo.
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]