With three games remaining, the Lakeland football team still has a chance to finish off the season on a positive note and become playoff eligible. It all starts tomorrow in Merrill.
The Thunderbirds go on the road at Merrill for a rare Saturday afternoon game starting at 1:30 p.m.
“It changes our preparation from the standpoint that we get one extra day of practice on the front end but lose a day of contact on the backend,” explained coach Dan Barutha. “This week, we gain an extra day to work some other situational things we haven’t covered in a bit with another day and we can also mix in some different practice structures and gimmicks for this week and beyond because of the added day.”
The Bluejays come into the game 1-5 overall, 1-2 in the GNC. Their last game at Ashland resulted in a 35-14 Bluejay win, their first and only victory in conference play.
Scoring has been a bit of an issue for the Bluejays. In their losses, they’ve averaged 5.4 points per game, while giving up 31.2 points per game. It is not a recipe for success.
The Bluejays have played two teams that the Thunderbirds have played. The Bluejays lost to Antigo 28-0 on Sept. 6 and lost to Mosinee 41-7 on Sept. 13.
Like most teams in conference, the Bluejays are a heavy run team. Besides last week against Ashland, it has been a struggle to get offense going.
In their win, quarterback Caleb DeJong ran the ball 25 times for 239 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged almost 10 yards a carry. He had runs of 49 and 37 yards for touchdowns.
“(DeJong’s) a good outside runner and they attack the C and D gaps well,” Barutha said. “Looking at the Ashland film, when they get their quarterback running, they are tough and he’s the straw that stirs the drink.”
As a thrower, DeJong completed 3 of 6 passes for just 36 yards. Eddie Collinsworth ran the ball effectively as well. He ran the ball 13 times for 67 yards. Caleb Timm caught all three passes for 36 yards.
The Bluejay defense limited Ashland’s offense to just 74 rushing yards and 159 passing yards.
On the year, DeJong leads the team with 525 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. Collinsworth is second with 282 yards and one touchdown. Timm has nine receptions for 146 yards this season.
It has been a struggle throwing the ball throughout the season. DeJong has completed just 25.5% of his passes and hasn’t thrown for a touchdown.
After last week’s loss to Mosinee, the Thunderbirds dropped to 3-3 overall, 1-3 in the GNC. But those three losses have come against the top three teams in conference.
The Thunderbirds have already played Medford, Mosinee and Rhinelander. Those losses against tough teams can only make them stronger moving forward.
“I definitely think we’re battle tested and have seen the ability to make and give up big plays relative to the outcome of the game,”?Barutha said. “We want to do a better job of maintaining an aggressive mentality, especially with plays that we know in the course of the game could make the difference.”
They wrap up the year with two more games in the GNC and one more non-conference game against Wausau East. Lakeland must win tomorrow at Merrill and a home contest next Friday against Ashland to get to 3-3 in the GNC and become playoff eligible.
The Thunderbird defense will need to be on their top game. Against Mosinee, they surrendered 245 yards rushing and 260 yards passing. They allowed quarterback Trey Fitzgerald to run and throw the ball, something that Merrill quarterback DeJong will want to do.
“We need to be disciplined and very sound at doing our specific job with the option and trust in our teammates to do theirs,”?Barutha said. “Everyone has a job and all are equally important in playing against this offense.”
The Thunderbird defense can hang their hat on the Antigo game. The Red Robins primarily had a rushing attack and the Thunderbirds held them to 109 yards rushing.
On offense, look for Erik Albertus and Jack Hartzheim to get more involved. They made their debuts last week against Mosinee and had big games.
Albertus both ran and caught the ball for multiple first downs and one touchdown. Hartzheim was a deep-threat, catching one over the top for a big gain.
Ouimette got back to running the ball with a sense of urgency. He had multiple rushes for first downs including an 18-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against Mosinee.
There have been plenty of close games for Thunderbirds this season. They closed out and finished with wins against Cudahy and Northland Pines.
But in close games against Rhinelander and Mosinee, the Thunderbirds could not come up with the big stop. They will look to come up clutch in the fourth quarter and close out the game against Merrill.
“Coming up with the big play really relates to not turning the ball over,”?Barutha said. “If you look at the games we lost compared to the games we’ve won, the turnover battle is a critical component to that.”
In another battle of the birds, the Bluejays and Thunderbirds play it out Saturday afternoon in Merrill.
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]