Though still a little too early to tell with 100% certainty where everyone will land in the final standings, it looks like Owatonna and Rochester John Marshall squared off against a pair of dangerous opponents in Week 1.
The only difference is the No. 5-ranked Huskies pulled off a thrilling victory over an explosive Rochester Mayo team in a game that could be described as definitively thrilling, somewhat chaotic and a tad sloppy.
The Rockets, on the other hand, didn’t win. Though it out-gained cross-town rival, Rochester Century, by almost 100 yards through the air, churned out a respectable 4.5 yards-per-carry on the ground and finished essentially equal in total yardage, John Marshall allowed Isaiah Huber to run wild and 34-19.
Objectively, both the Huskies and Rockets are a bit raw in some key spots and many of their miscues — at least in Owatonna’s case — can be attributed to youthful inexperience. In many ways, Saturday’s 1 p.m. Big Southeast District Red Division showdown could reveal quite a bit about how the 2020 season will unfold for the Huskies. There’s no doubt many of Owatonna’s freshly-minted starters on both sides of the ball struggled with adjusting to the amplified nature of varsity football and the lack of a preseason scrimmage only exacerbated things.
But with a full four quarters and almost three weeks of practice under their belts, that reasoning will start wearing thin on OHS coach Jeff Williams if his team don’t begin to display marked improvement.
“I think lot boils down to the fact that it took a while for the kids to adjust to speed and physicality of the game,” Williams said over the phone on Wednesday afternoon. “You know, and the kids tend to ‘brother-in-law’ each other a little bit and, frankly, we don’t hit and collide full speed during practice, that’s just not something we do. And without the benefit of a scrimmage, I think we struggled in some areas and need to get better.”
Perhaps the biggest concern following Week 1’s victory was the Huskies’ inconsistencies up front. With no reigning all-district players to anchor the bunch and only two of the nine total spots on both of the line (five offensive linemen, four defensive linemen) having returned from 2019, the greatest opportunity for improvement for the Huskies can be distilled into two key areas: Blocking and pressuring the quarterback.
Of the two, the former appears to be of greater concern as Matt Seykora did register a key sack on third down in the first half and his teammates forced Mayo quarterback Bennett Ellsworth into an errant throw on a game-deciding play late in the fourth quarter. However, this year’s pool of big bodies to pull from is a bit shallower compared to most seasons and returning starters Gavin Rein and Nate Smith played on both sides of the ball far more than the staff would have traditionally preferred last Saturday.
“We’ve got to find a way to get some the Gavin Reins and the Nate Smiths a chance to get off the field,” Williams admitted. “We’re digging a little deeper to find lineman than we normally would.”
As for keeping the pocket clean for Brayden Truelson, that was a bit more concerning than the issues on the defensive side of the ball. Though he finished a crisp 18-for-25 for 242 yards and one touchdown, Truelson was flushed out of the pocket on almost every play in the first half — partially contributing to a rare interception he threw on the third play of the game — and was sacked three times.
It would be unfair to expect the 2020 group to ascend to the level of last season’s core of offensive lineman that featured four all-district players, but even marginal improvement every week will significantly raise the ceiling — and elevate the floor — of this year’s team. Even with Mayo jerseys leaking through the line and threatening him on just about every throw, Truelson was on the money, spinning darts into tight windows and remaining poised under duress.
If he is afforded a clean pocket, which Williams said will only come in a matter of time, it would take nothing short of air-tight coverage for him to miss his target.
“I thought Brayden was exceptional,” Williams said. “His courage in the pocket was great and how he kept his eyeballs down the field, I mean, you can’t teach that. But he won’t make it through an entire season with a night like he had (in Week 1). We might also need to switch a few things around and move the pocket a little bit to make things a little easier on the (offensive line) until we get a more experienced.”
When it comes to defense, Owatonna missed a number of seemingly routine tackles against the Spartans — two of which led directly to long touchdowns — but has far more experience on that side of the ball, particularly at the second and third levels. Not only does OHS roll back two high-level and complimentary defensive backs (Payton Beyer, Zach Stransky), but retains an experienced outside linebacker (Seykora) and a player in Grant Achterkirch who would have likely started last year had he not played the same position (ILB) as the district’s Red Division Player of the Year, Isaac Gefre.
WEEK 2 BREAKDOWN:
Rochester John Marshall (0-1)
Finding themselves in a strikingly similar situation as Owatonna, the Rockets lost their three most-accomplished linemen from 2019 and were exploited by a level of athleticism from their opponent that was perhaps a bit jarring for most of the inexperienced players in Week 1.
Century’s senior dynamo Isaiah Huber — who has committed to play football at future Division I program Augustana University in Sioux Falls — torched the JM defense for 231 rushing yards on just 16 carries, finishing with a Jason Williamson-esque 14.4 yards-per-attempt. Oh, and he scored five touchdowns.
“They struggled with Huber’s speed,” Williams said of the 5-foot-9 tailback who has been clocked at a blistering 4.47-seconds in the 40-yard dash. “It’s tough to tell from their highlights if there is anything we can really exploit because we don’t have track stars this year and might need to be more patient.”
Similar to Rochester Mayo, the Rockets base formation is a 4-3 concept, but unlike the Spartans, John Marshall deploys a zone coverage opposed to Mayo’s man-to-man scheme, though coverage concepts are fluid and often change depending on the situation.
The Rockets have been known to stack the box with four down linemen and four linebackers against ground-oriented opponents and might even alternate their coverage in the back end as well.
There’s just no telling.
“We have practiced primarily against the zone, but our kids have seen a mix and know how to react according to what the defense shows,” Williams said. “We expected to see a lot more man-to-man against Mayo last week and they came out in a zone, so you just never know.”
Assuming the Rockets remain true to their typical formation and drop into a zone, that could play into Owatonna’s’ favor. Williams’ pass-heavy offensive philosophy, which is cut from the same cloth as the Air Raid scheme made popular by current Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, was specifically-designed to stretch a defense horizontally and vertically while sliding its pass-catchers into open space. With Huber stealing the show on the ground, CHS quarterback, Nathan Eberhart, wasn’t asked to do too much, but when he was given the opportunity to air it out, he finished an efficient 8-for-11 for 88 yards to go with one touchdown and one interception.
On the other side of the ball, John Marshall’s top returning weapon is senior running back Parker Navitsky, who is listed at 6-feet and 210 pounds. Last week, he touched the ball 13 times (10 carries, 3 receptions) and accumulated 126 yards. He will share the workload with fellow ball-carrier, Nate Swanson, who found the end zone twice against the Panthers and finished with 83 yards on 14 rushes.
Cole Peterson returns as the Rockets’ primary quarterback, and the results were a mixed bag last week. Perhaps going to the air a little more than he would normally prefer in a John Marshall offense that is comfortable grinding teams on the ground, Peterson completed 15 of 29 throws for 164 yards. He was picked off twice and threw one touchdown to Michael Nicometo.
Overall, John Marshall was only out-gained by just 24 yards (367 to 343) against Century with its production split almost right down the middle.
Owatonna held Rochester Mayo to just 1-for-10 on third downs and surrendered less than 60 yards on the ground...A quarter of Rochester Mayo’s total offensive yardage came on a 67-yard touchdown that started as an 8-yard hitch route...John Marshall led 7-0 after the first quarter against Century last week but was out-scored 34-8 over the game’s final three quarters...The last time John Marshall defeated Owatonna was Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005 when the Rockets finished the regular season with a 28-14 victory.
According to AccuWeather.com, Saturday is projecting to be the warmest day of the week and will rise to an above-average 62 degrees at kickoff.