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WATERTOWN — Offense wasn’t a problem for the Columbus prep football team on Friday night against Watertown Luther Prep. It just wasn’t the reason the Cardinals won.

That honor belongs to the special teams and the defense.

The Cardinals held Luther Prep to under 200 yards of total offense, blocked a punt and got a long kick return that set up what ended up being the game-winning score as visiting Columbus prevailed 14-7 in a Capitol North Conference game to take another huge step toward qualifying for the playoffs.

It was just the kind of knock down, drag ’em out contest Columbus coach Calvin Zenz expected.

“We knew that,” he said. “I spent an inordinate amount of time watching film — more than normal — because I knew they were going to give us fits. They play really good defense. They fly around and they’re aggressive. I was super impressed with their defense.”

Thanks to his team’s own defense and the big kick return, though, the Cardinals were able to keep the Phoenix from rising up.

The Columbus (5-3, 2-2 Capitol North) defense held on Luther Prep’s (4-4, 2-2) final series of the first half, which forced kicker Yuri Soloviyov to have to attempt a long 40-yard field that had the leg but sailed wide right.

That preserved the Cardinals’ 7-0 advantage — which they got on Caden Brunell’s 45-yard TD run right up the gut with 7 minutes, 15 seconds left in the first half, giving him almost a third of his 154 rushing yards on the night — and allowed them to keep momentum, which they would use right away in the second half.

Teagan Herschleb’s 46-yard kickoff return to open the half gave the Cardinals the ball on Luther Prep’s 30, and three plays later he found paydirt when Will Cotter hit him on a post route for a 28-yard TD that made it 14-0.

Luther Prep answered right back to get within 14-7 with just under 5 minutes to go in the third quarter on Elijah Shevey’s 26-yard TD strike to a wide-open Paul Frick.

But advantages in time of possession and field position and a few big plays on defense assured that the Cardinals didn’t relinquish the lead.

Columbus answered with a 4-minute, 58-second drive that ended in a punt, but got the ball back right away on an interception by Alex Campbell — his second of the contest.

The Cardinals then marched all the way down to Luther Prep’s 10-yard-line but ultimately turned it over on downs at the 1. That long drive — it took 5:48 — served the purpose of chewing up a good chunk of clock, though, and Luther Prep went three-and-out on the ensuing possession.

Then after Columbus went three-and-out, the defense stepped up again. Luther Prep was on the march, getting all the way to the Cardinals’ 35-yard-line, before Caden Brunell got home on a blitz for a sack that pushed the Phoenix back 10 yards and made it second-and-20.

“We were talking in the headsets about how we had to get more pressure, and he shot through there,” Zenz said.

Brunell wasn’t alone. Two plays later, Jacob Roche came off the left edge for a sack on third-and-20 to force a turnover on downs.

“That was big for those guys to step up,” Zenz said. “We talked right before that drive (about how) we need some playmakers to step up — and him and James did that.”

Columbus ended up turning it over on downs with 1 second to go in an ill-fated attempt to kneel out the clock, but Luther Prep’s subsequent Hail Mary try fell harmlessly to the ground.

The blocked punt came midway through the first quarter and gave the Cardinals the ball at Luther Prep’s 35, but they weren’t able to make anything of it.

And while that was frustrating for the Cardinals — “We didn’t capitalize on it, but we should have,” Zenz said — they knew nothing would come easy against Luther Prep’s stingy D.

“We missed a few opportunities to kind of put this thing away, but that’s a hell of a football team over there — and a really well-coached team,” Zenz said. “Hopefully they can pull off the upset (against state-ranked Lake Mills in Week 9) and make the playoffs, because they absolutely deserve it.”

Meanwhile, last week’s upset of Lodi — at the time the fourth-ranked team in the medium schools division of the Associated Press poll — coupled with this win over Luther Prep has Columbus on the cusp of a playoff berth one year after going 1-8.

And they’ve gotten there — they need a win over struggling Poynette (2-6, 0-4) next week to qualify — thanks to a challenging schedule that includes Lake Mills (7-1, 4-0), Lodi (6-2, 2-2) and Division 5 state power Statford (8-0), which hasn’t allowed a single point all year and is ranked No. 1 in the medium schools division.

“We’ve played a really tough schedule to prepare us for these kinds of moments,” Zenz said. “We’re moving in the right direction.

“Like I told the guys, this (win) guarantees them a winning season. We won one game last year. That’s a big deal, to go from one win to a winning season. I’m real proud of the work these guys have put in.”

COLUMBUS 14, WATERTOWN LUTHER PREP 7

Columbus 0 7 7 0 — 14

Luther Prep 0 0 7 0 — 7

Col — Caden Brunell 45 run (Joe Morris kick), 7:15, 2nd.

Col — Teagan Herschleb 28 pass from Will Cotter (Joe Morris kick), 10:27, 3rd.

WLP — Paul Frick 26 pass from Elijah Shevey (Yuri Soloviyov kick), 4:56, 3rd.

TEAM STATISTICS

First downs — Col 11, WLP 13. Rushing (Att.-Yds) — Col 37-168, WLP 29-27. Passing yards — Col 125, WLP 172. Passing (Comp.-Att.-Int.) — Col 10-17-1, WLP 14-25-2. Fumbles-lost — Col, 2-0. WLP — 2-0. Penalties-yards — Col 7-60, WLP 3-26.

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

Rushing: Col, Caden Brunell 27-154, Will Cotter 9-19. WLP, Nathan deGalley 2-29, Jon Holtz 18-29.

Passing: Col, Will Cotter 10-17-1-125. WLP, Elijah Shevey 14-25-2-172.

Receiving: Col, Teagan Herschleb 2-38, Alex Campbell 3-36, Caden Brunell 1-24, Joe Morris 1-15, Evan Anderson 2-11. WLP, Nathan deGalley 6-96, Paul Frick 2-41, Cole Burow 5-32.

Caden Brunell

Columbus' Caden Brunell (left) races up the right sideline for a 56-yard run during the first half of the Cardinals' Capitol North Conference game against Watertown Luther Prep on Friday night at Umnus Field in Watertown.

Will Cotter

Columbus quarterback Will Cotter attempts a pass to Evan Anderson during the first half of the Cardinals' Capitol North Conference game at Watertown Luther Prep on Friday night.

Evan Anderson

Columbus' Evan Anderson (4) attempts to run through a tackle attempt by Watertown Luther Prep's Christian Koelpin during the first half of the Cardinals' Capitol North Conference game against the Phoenix on Friday night at Umnus Field in Watertown.

Caden Brunell

Columbus' Caden Brunell cuts to his right to avoid Watertown Luther Prep's Brett Wieting (45) during the first half of the Cardinals' Capitol North Conference game against the Phoenix on Friday night at Umnus Field in Watertown.

Caden Brunell

Columbus' Caden Brunell (middle) fights to try and fall forward as he's tackled by Watertown Luther Prep's Ethan Buege (84) and David Baumann (33) during the first half of the Cardinals' Capitol North Conference game against the Phoenix on Friday night at Umnus Field in Watertown.

Will Cotter

Columbus quarterback Will Cotter hands off to Caden Brunell during the first half of the Cardinals' Capitol North Conference game at Watertown Luther Prep on Friday night.

Line Of Scrimmage

Columbus defensive linemen Austin Rennhack (57), Kendall Minick (18) and Tayvon Hayes (76) dig in before a Watertown Luther Prep offensive play from the Phoenix's own 1-yard-line during the first half of a Capitol North Conference game on Friday night at Umnus Field in Watertown.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Danny_Larson_8 or contact him at 920-356-6753.

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