While a strong passing game is a threat to deliver a big play on every snap, an imposing rushing attack is perhaps an even more powerful weapon.
For the St. Croix Central football team, a strong ground game was just what the doctor ordered after the Panthers had seemingly plateaued in the WIAA postseason. St. Croix Central qualified for the playoffs in all but two seasons from 2002-13, but never got past Level 3, accumulating a 5-10 record.
Struggling to get over the hump, seasoned head coach Tony Disalvo opted to transition away from the Panthers’ pass-heavy spread offense attack to the run-oriented, old-school triple-option.
“You never know what kind of weather you’re going to run into in Wisconsin,” he said. “For a spread team, it’s really hard throwing the ball and running the ball in the snow and nasty weather.”
The switch quickly paid dividends with St. Croix Central making back-to-back trips to the state quarterfinals in 2014 and 2015, then experiencing a significant breakthrough last season. The Panthers plowed through the playoffs en route to capturing their first state championship since 1988 with a 49-28 win over River Valley in last year’s Division 4 state title game at Camp Randall Stadium.
St. Croix Central is on a roll once again, utilizing its multifaceted rushing attack to get back to Camp Randall in search of a second straight state title when it takes on Lodi tonight.
“We come in with a big target on our back and I think the kids have really responded well to that all season,” Disalvo said. “We’re excited to get back and to play a very, very good Lodi team.”
For Disalvo, the real key to his team’s rushing success has been the team’s unselfish attitude. According to the coach, now in his 17th year with the Panthers, the players understand their role and have taken a liking to the triple-option — and they’re not alone.
“A lot of accolades go out to our administration and students for buying in,” Disalvo said.
On the field, the Panthers feature a number of talented rushers, led by running back Ryan Larson. The 6-foot, 205-pound junior has a team-best 1,244 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns on a team-high 166 attempts, helping the Panthers average 30.5 points per game.
Larson, who has averaged 7.5 yards per attempt and 103.7 yards per game this season, was crucial in last year’s state title game. St. Croix Central ran the ball 70 times against the Blackhawks, feeding 41 carries to Larson as he went for 157 yards and four scores.
“The Larson kid, in my opinion, is one of the best fullbacks I’ve ever seen in however many years I’ve been coaching football,” Lodi coach Dave Puls said. “(We’re) going to have to tackle Larson and that’s not an easy task. Many have tried and many have failed and if you don’t start with tackling him, it’s going to be a long night.”
The Blue Devils defense will also have to fend off senior quarterback Collin Nelson (5-11, 170) and junior running back Keagan Berg (5-9, 175). Nelson and Berg have each added nine touchdowns for the Panthers with Nelson chipping in 930 yards and Berg contributing 761.
“It’s going to be a huge task,” Puls said of stopping the Panthers’ three-headed rushing monster. “It’s one of those things where that wishbone triple-option, they just grind and grind and get a first down. The minute you think you got them stopped, here comes a big pass or somebody breaks free and takes off for a long run.”
“We just have to make sure that we tackle every guy on every play,” Lodi senior linebacker Max Barreau added. “We just have to play assignment football.”
Along with trying to limit St. Croix Central’s ground attack, the Blue Devils must try to penetrate St. Croix Central’s dominant defense. The Panthers are limiting teams to just 8.9 points per game and under 200 yards per game, including 122.8 rushing yards per contest.
St. Croix Central features six players with seven or more tackles for loss and six players with two or more sacks, as the team has racked up 67 tackles for loss, 21 sacks and 13 turnovers with the duo of Larson and Berg leading the way. Larson has a team-high 85 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack while Berg has 78 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and three sacks.
“They’re an amazing defense,” Puls said. “They have a motor, they never take plays off and we’re going to have to grind it out.”