Brent Yule’s first season as a head football coach this fall is set to come against a regular-season slate littered with high-quality opponents.
Class 5A state title contender Mankato West visits Northfield for the final home game of the season, while Section 1-5A finalists Owatonna and Rochester Mayo both have trips to Northfield on their schedules this fall. Outside of Mayo, however, every opponent on the 2021 slate is a team the Raiders faced off against last fall, once you fold in the Section 1-5A playoff matchup against Austin.
Returning for Northfield to take on that schedule are plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball. Rising senior Spencer Klotz received experience under center last fall, while rising junior Charlie Monaghan played at running back and linebacker in 2020. On the outside, the Raiders graduate nearly all of their receiving experience from a season ago.
Listed below is an opponent-by-opponent breakdown of the eight-game regular season.
Sept. 3 — at Austin
Northfield has won twice in the past two years, with both victories coming against Austin. Last season, that 17-0 victory took place in the makeshift fifth-place game in the Section 1-5A playoffs.
This year, the Packers are back on the regular-season schedule and present an opportunity for the Raiders to win their first game of the season for the first time since 2017, when they finished 8-0 in the regular season.
Austin is coming off a 1-6 campaign, with the one victory a 47-0 triumph against Albert Lea and the losses against Winona, Byron, Faribault, Rochester John Marshall and Mankato East. The Packers will need to replace its starting quarterback Teyghan Hovland, who’s off to join the baseball team at St. Cloud State.
Hovland was the primary driver of the Austin offense, which does bring back one of its top options in the backfield in rising senior running back Joseph Walker. Also returning is rising junior wide receiver Tommy Fritz, in addition to rising senior Gage Manahan. And while Hovland is departing, rising junior Jack Lang did receive a smattering of experience under center last fall.
In last season’s game against Northfield, Manahan hauled in four of Austin’s five receptions for 43 yards.
Sept. 10 — vs. Rochester Mayo
One of the bigger surprise teams from last season, Rochester Mayo twice pushed Owatonna to the brink but twice fell just short of knocking off the Huskies in the regular season and in the Section 1-5A championship.
Entering this season, the Spartans are once again primed to challenge the top of the Big Southeast District and Section 1-5A. That starts under center, where rising senior Bennett Ellsworth is looking to build off a season in which he completed 56.7% of his passes for 1,510 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions in seven games.
Three of his four most frequent targets from last season also return with rising senior Cayden Holcomb, rising sophomore Carter Holcomb and rising senior Michael Mankaka. The eldest Holcomb led the team in production by a large margin with 34 receptions for 538 yards, while the youngest Holcomb hauled in a team-high three touchdowns.
The offensive question mark is in the offensive backfield, where workhorse DeMonte Simmons racked up 666 yards and nine touchdowns in seven games.
These two teams did not play last year, and Mayo won 48-15 in the 2019 regular-season opener.
Sept. 17 — vs. Rochester John Marshall
One of a couple near misses from last season that Northfield has a chance to rectify this fall. In the 2020 matchup, the Rockets held on for a 21-14 home victory.
That was one of two wins last season for Rochester John Marshall, which also beat Austin 43-24 but lost to Rochester Century twice, Owatonna and Rochester Mayo.
Like Northfield, Rochester John Marshall is left to try and replace the majority of its offensive production in 2021. Quarterback Cole Peterson, running backs Nate Swanson and Parker Navitsky, and wide receivers Jack Ward and Michael Diep have all graduated.
Also gone is 5-foot-10, 290-pound lineman Alex Santos, but it wouldn’t be Rochester John Marshall football without another behemoth patrolling both sides of the line. This year, that’s rising senior Ben Laack, who measured in last fall at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds.
The Rockets have won the last three matchups between these two teams.
Sept. 24 — at New Prague
The final score of last year’s matchup — a 23-7 victory for the Trojans — doesn’t quite tell the whole story after New Prague picked up a safety and a late rushing touchdown to blow up what was a one-touchdown game in the fourth quarter.
In that game, New Prague ran wild on the ground for 204 yards, and the primary option Beau Plaisance has graduated. His running mate, rising senior Brendan Pieper, is back for this fall, however.
Also returning for his senior season is starting quarterback Luke Shepard, although the training wheels weren’t often taken off for him to fully direct the offense last fall.
Last season, that running-centric approach produced wins against Northfield and Rochester Century, in addition to losses against Mankato West, Kasson-Mantorville and Waconia.
New Prague has won the last two matchups with Northfield.
Oct. 1 — vs. Owatonna
For the first time in recent memory, the Huskies do not have a bonafide offensive star that’s slated to take over this fall. Starting quarterback Brayden Truelson, star wide receiver/defensive back/return man Payton Beyer and starting running back Tanner Hall have all graduated.
Rising senior Taylor Bogen attempted two passes last season, while rising seniors Dylan Maas and Nick Williams both received a handful of carries in 2020. On the outside, Williams is also the most experienced returner, with Caleb Vereide the only other returning Husky with more than five receptions last year.
On defense, rising senior Grant Achterkirch does return this year after notching a team-high 34 solo tackles and 17 assisted tackles in seven games. Achterkirch also has lower-level experience at quarterback, although it’s unlike Owatonna to play its quarterback on defense, so he’ll likely have to pick one side of the ball.
Last year, the Huskies finished 5-2 with the losses against Monticello and Mankato West, and a pair of one-score wins against Rochester Mayo, plus blowout victories against John Marshall, Century and Northfield.
In terms of recent history between Owatonna and Northfield, the Huskies have been taking out their frustrations on the Raiders with four straight wins through the last three seasons.
Oct. 8 — at Rochester Century
The Panthers planted themselves directly in the middle of the Big Southeast District last fall, with two wins against Rochester John Marshall and victories against Winona and Northfield, in addition to losses against Mayo, Owatonna and New Prague.
That win against the Raiders featured a standout game from starting running back Isaiah Huber, who’s off to play at Augustana University this fall. Outside of that, the Panthers one of their two quarterbacks in rising senior Matthew Haun.
Rochester Century has won three of the last four games against Northfield, with that one loss coming in the 2018 Section 1-5A semifinals.
Oct. 15 — vs. Mankato West
Perhaps no team was hurt more by the abbreviated postseason than Mankato West, which did claim the Section 2-5A championship with a 22-15 victory against Chaska.
That victory capped a 6-0 campaign for the Scarlets, who boat raced all of New Prague, Mankato East, Northfield, Rochester Mayo and Owatonna. The closest of those non-Chaska wins were a 35-14 win against Owatonna and a 20-0 victory against Mankato East.
While the Scarlets do need to weather the graduations of starting running back Owen Johnson and Max Goertzen, a frequent option on the outside, they also return a healthy amount of production.
That includes starting quarterback Zander Dittbenner, who completed 60.2% of his passes as a junior last fall for 1,057 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in six games.
The other standout returner is rising senior wide receiver Mekhi Collins, who tied with Goertzen for a team-high 23 receptions and outpaced his elder in terms of distance travelled and scores with 395 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Collins has received a significant amount of Division I interest for football, and his recruiting has started to pick up steam on the basketball court this summer.
Dittbenner, meanwhile, has collegiate options on the football field and the baseball diamond.
Mankato West has won the last two matchups against Northfield.
Oct. 20 — at Faribault
The most entertaining game of 2020 caps off the 2021 schedule. Faribault started its breakout 2020 season with a 30-28 double-overtime victory against Northfield to claim the Cannon Trophy for the first time since 1988.
After that win, the Falcons proceeded to beat Austin, Winona and Albert Lea before a victory against Red Wing in the Section 1-4A third-place game. Faribault lost against Kasson-Mantorville and Mankato East.
Faribault graduates its starting running back Alex Gardner and running back/wide receiver Taylor Day, plus standout defensive ends Nick Ehlers and John Palmer. Leading the offensive charge into this fall is rising senior quarterback Hunter Nelson, who tossed three touchdown passes and rushed for the eventual game-winning two-point conversion in last year’s game against Northfield.
On the outside, Nelson’s No. 1 option AJ Worrall returns for his senior season. In the backfield, rising seniors Elijah Hammonds and Matthias Lenway are set to take over for Gardner, who was hurt for the Northfield game last season.
That allowed Hammonds to rush 16 times for 88 yards and a touchdown.