Lakeville South walked into U.S. Bank Stadium with as much swagger as a 6-5 team could muster when it’s going against an undefeated opponent.
The Cougars were hopeful but realistic. They knew they would have to play almost perfectly to have a chance to beat Lakeville North and reach the Prep Bowl - and even then, they’d probably need a couple of breaks.
“I think our kids believed tonight we could win if we played great,” South coach Tyler Krebs said. “We didn’t play great.”
A 35-13 loss to Lakeville North in the Class 6A football semifinals last Friday ended South’s season, while North goes to the Prep Bowl looking to be the first Lakeville team to win a state championship since 2003. Lakeville North will play Eden Prairie in the Class 6A final at 7 p.m. Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Lakeville South’s defense forced North to punt on its first two possessions. The Cougars went ahead early, driving 80 yards for a touchdown the first time they had the ball, and had a chance to increase the lead before a penalty derailed them in North territory. After that, Lakeville North’s running game – fueled by a big, strong offensive line and two top-flight running backs – took over as the Panthers rushed for 420 yards.
Lakeville South, however, got a lot out of a season that looked to be going off the rails less than two months ago. The Cougars were 1-5 before a five-game winning streak brought them to the state semifinals.
“What a blast this last few weeks has been, right?” Krebs said. “It’s 31-0 at halftime (in an Oct. 5 game at Rosemount that South eventually lost 31-15) and we’re staring 1-5 in the face. We’re thinking about the cliche message – ‘It’s 0-0, win a half.’ We won a half, then we won a game, then we won two games, and it snowballed from there. It’s a credit to our assistant coaches and our players. They kept battling and never gave up.”
South drove 80 yards in 11 plays for the game’s first touchdown, with Jared Stewart’s 6-yard gain on fourth down setting up a 31-yard scoring run by junior Johnny Shabaz. That was the first time South had scored a touchdown against North since 2015.
“The first drive our offensive line came out awesome,” said Shabaz, who rushed for 91 yards. “I wasn’t getting touched until 10 yards down the field.”
A short punt put the Cougars back in North territory, but a false start penalty stalled the drive and forced the Cougars to punt. North evened the game with an 83-yard, 14-play drive, and it turned out the undefeated Panthers (12-0) were just getting started. The Panthers got all their yards on the ground, with senior Brian Curtis Jr. gaining 214 on 25 carries and junior RaJa Nelson running for 177 yards on 23 tries. Nelson scored three of North’s five touchdowns.
“We put as many guys in the box as we could,” Krebs said. “What they’re good at is they’re big, they get on you and they get a push. Those backs are just really good at finding a seam, and that’s a great mesh with their big offensive line that gets on people and moves them. It’s hard to defend every gap because their backs are so good.”
South quarterback Reid Patterson scored on a 6-yard run early in the fourth quarter, but North squashed any comeback threat by driving 80 yards for its final touchdown.
The Cougars got 186 of the 189 yards on the ground, but in the second quarter lost starting guard Max Hoffman, who was injured on a kickoff return. Hoffman was taken off on a stretcher with a splint on his right leg.
Stewart, a senior running back and linebacker, rushed for 52 yards as well as making 12 tackles on defense. Defensive back Grant Scheuermann had five stops.
Lakeville North is in a position Lakeville South hopes to be soon. “Most people didn’t expect us to get here,” said Shabaz, who expressed confidence the Cougars would make another deep playoff run in 2019.
“We’re not quite there yet with our size and depth. I think we will be in a couple of years,” Krebs said. “We made a great run with the guys we have, but we’re playing with guys who are undersized, and (North) took advantage of that tonight.”
Last week’s victory was Lakeville North’s 10th in a row over Lakeville South, and North holds a 12-5 lead in the overall series.
Krebs played for Lakeville High School’s state runner-up team in 1991 and was a teacher and assistant football coach at Eastview when Lakeville opened its second high school in 2005. He was head coach at Burnsville for six years before going to Lakeville South, where he just completed his second season.
Krebs said “the whole North-South thing is new to me,” but added the Cougars are anxious to break their losing streak against North.
“I know it’s been a while, but we’re doing all the right things and when you do the right things long enough, eventually it turns,” he said. “It didn’t happen (Friday), but I believe in our kids and our program and what we’re doing, and I think we’ll get there eventually.”
Brady Torborg did it all for Lakeville South on Friday night.
His most important play ensured the Cougars advanced in the Class 6A football playoffs.
The senior returned an interception 48 yards with 1:19 to play as Lakeville South beat Woodbury 13-0.
Moments after crossing the goal line, Torborg, who had two of the Cougars’ four interceptions, experienced a feeling he wouldn’t trade.
“When I had the boys dogpiled on me it was just amazing,” said Torborg, who also rushed for 53 yards in his first start of the season as the team’s quarterback, although he was the Cougars’ signal-caller for much of the 2016 season. Starter George Brekke is expected back next week.
The low-scoring Cougars (4-5) will be heavy underdogs Nov. 3 at St. Michael-Albertville (8-1), which defeated Hopkins 41-18 Friday.
“This coaching staff has put in way too much time; we’ve put in way too much time to not be able to make a run,” said Torborg, also the team’s punter. “We’re the lower seed, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to playoffs. We’re going to prepare as much as we can and see what happens.”
This was just the third game this season in which Lakeville South reached double digits in points.
“We made one more play than they did,” said Cougars coach Tyler Krebs.
With light snow falling throughout the game, Woodbury quarterback Ryan Christensen, whose white jersey was about half black by game’s end, was under pressure much of the game yet passed for 151 yards as the Royals (4-5) lost for the first time in their past five games.
“On defense was dominant like they’ve been most of the year, our offense just couldn’t play together,” said coach Andy Hill. “I honestly thought we were going to win, right up until the end. … I will never watch this film.”
The Royals defense allowed one touchdown in the team’s final five games. It had little to do with the first points scored by Lakeville South.
An early interception by Ty Willman was returned to the Royals’ 30, but the Cougars could only manage a 31-yard field goal by John Olson. A bad snap on a Woodbury punt went through the end zone to make it 5-0 Lakeville South less than two minutes later.
Woodbury recovered all three of its fumbled snaps in the opening half, however, the Royals lost a costly fumble at the Cougars’ 40 as Zach Ames had the ball stripped following a 49-yard reception.
Lakeville South lost one fumble and recovered a fumbled snap in the opening 24 minutes. It did not turn the ball over in the second half.
Last weekend the Lakeville North activities department Twitter account pointed out there’s a seat available in U.S. Bank Stadium for every Lakeville resident who wants to watch Friday night’s football playoff game between the community’s two high schools.
And that meant every Lakeville resident. The stadium seats more than 66,000 people, and Lakeville’s 2017 population was almost 64,000.
“I saw that,” Lakeville South offensive lineman Josh Schultz said. “That was funny.”
“I think all of Lakeville’s going to be there,” said Schultz’s teammate, Max Hoffman.
Now the Cougars want to keep their end of the bargain by making sure the fans’ trip downtown was worth it. Lakeville South goes into the Class 6A semifinal game as a heavy underdog to undefeated and No. 1-ranked Lakeville North, but at the end of their practice Tuesday at the Savage Sports Dome the Cougars sounded like a team that believed they could pull a shocking upset.
Coach Tyler Krebs made the point to the team and asked the players to picture what it would be like to leave U.S. Bank Stadium with a playoff victory, while adding it would take an nearly error-free game to do it.
Krebs reiterated that a few minutes later while speaking with a reporter. “We feel if we play our best game we’ve got a shot,” he said.
Kickoff for the Cougars-vs.-Panthers game is 7 p.m. The winner plays Eden Prairie or Blaine in the Class 6A championship game at the Prep Bowl at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23, also at U.S. Bank Stadium. Eden Prairie and Blaine play their semifinal game Thursday night.
Lakeville is assured of having a team in the state large-school championship game for the first time since 2012, when Lakeville North lost to Eden Prairie. Lakeville teams have reached championship games seven times previously, winning in 1988, 1992 and 2003, all before the North-South split. Lakeville South reached the Prep Bowl in 2006, the second year the school was open, losing to Eden Prairie 21-14.
Lakeville South extended its winning streak to five games with a 28-14 victory over Woodbury in the Class 6A semifinals in frigid weather at Osseo High School. The Cougars (6-5) moved above .500 for the first time all season.
Playing Lakeville North just adds intrigue to a game that would have been the South program’s biggest in more than a decade regardless of the opponent.
“None of us are scared. At the end of the day, we wanted to play North,” Hoffman said. “We wanted that challenge.”
The game features two teams with successful rushing offenses, albeit with vastly different philosophies. North has a massive line and two fast, shifty running backs in Brian Curtis Jr. (his school’s single-season rushing leader) and RaJa Nelson.
Lakeville South changed offenses this season, going to a T-formation attack that emphasizes precision and deception to make up for a lack of size. The offense started producing big plays the last few weeks. South is averaging about 43 points a game during its winning streak.
“After the Shakopee game (a 48-20 victory Oct. 12), when we started putting up the points, that gave everybody a little bit of hope,” Schultz said.
Both teams like to run, but somewhere along the way a big passing play could affect the outcome. Lakeville North defeated Lakeville South 28-3 in a regular-season game Sept. 21, a game in which Krebs said “we did a pretty good job stopping the run, but they hurt us in the passing game because they’re talented.”
Lakeville South didn’t throw a pass against Woodbury but did more than enough damage on the ground, rushing for 346 yards and an 8-yard average per carry. Tavian Laden and Johnny Shabaz broke big plays, running 40 and 55 yards for touchdowns in the first half. Jared Stewart scored on a 2-yard run early in the second quarter as South took a 14-0 lead, then put the game out of reach with an 18-yard run for the Cougars’ final touchdown with 1 minute, 6 seconds remaining.
Laden rushed for 145 yards, Shabaz had 85 and Stewart 74.
Dean Cardis and Mason Dahlager each had 11 tackles for South, and Stewart and Josh Loveless had 10 stops each.
The run-always game plan was fine with South linemen such as Hoffman. “When it’s cold, it’s a lot better to run. We can be a little smashmouth,” he said.
Hoffman and Schultz, the starting guards, each weigh less than 200 pounds. That means they’re undersized by modern football standards. But becoming familiar with the nuances of the offense helped them become effective. It just took some time.
“We’ve run it close to 1,000 times, so it’s kind of automatic now,” Hoffman said.
Still, there was some skepticism about the change.
“Last year I was an outside linebacker and then got switched to guard,” Schultz said. “Coach Krebs said at the end of the year I might be playing guard and I kind of thought it was a joke.
“It turned out he wasn’t kidding.”
Reid Patterson moved to quarterback at the beginning of the South surge and has run the offense efficiently. The biggest difference from the Cougars’ 1-5 start to now is “our offensive execution is night and day from where we were then,” Krebs said. “It’s taken us the whole season to learn the offense. We’re playing so much faster and we’re able to pop some big plays because of all the misdirection we’re doing.”
Now the Cougars say they want to try it again against their crosstown rivals.
“We felt we played well in the first half of the first game, then fell apart,” Schultz said. “We’re looking forward to a rematch.”