Indians hope second time around is the charm
By now, there isn't a team left that's not playing well, as the 2012 Prep Bowl games get underway Friday and run through Saturday on the turf of the warm and cozy Metro-dome in Minneapolis.
But the two teams vying for the Class 1A state championship took much different routes to the title tilt, as Mahnomen will face Bethlehem Academy Saturday at 10 a.m. inside the Metrodome.
The No. 1 ranked and undefeated Mahnomen Indians took a direct route to the championship, as they picked up where they left off from last year's finish as the Class 1A state runners-up.
The Indians plowed through the competition by averaging 43 points per game, while squashing their opponents by allowing just 3.6 points per game.
In essence, the fact the Indians are playing in their second straight state championship game is a shock to no one.
"We've been here playing for a championship before and we were expecting to come back this year," said Mahnomen head coach John Clark Jr.
"But I say this constantly, with Mahnomen's rich tradition, people get spoiled and expect this every year. These kids have accomplished something which doesn't happen much."
Their opponent is the much less known Bethlehem Academy (Faribault) Cardinals, who bring in an 11-2 record.
The Cardinals have not been ranked in the state all season and are making their state playoff debut.
Compare that to the Indians, vying for their seventh state championship and their 21st overall appearance in the state playoffs, and the two teams are definitely on different sides of the spectrum.
But Clark and his team realize this championship game comes down to four quarters of play, while history and tradition will not have much to do with the final outcome.
The Cardinals know upsets, as well.
Bethlehem's victories in the state playoffs came against No. 2 ranked Sleepy Eye St. Mary's in the quarterfinals by the score of 43-12, and a 29-20 win over defending state champion and No. 3 ranked Dawson-Boyd in last Saturday's semifinal.
They avenged an earlier 12-7 loss to No. 7 ranked Blooming Prairie with a whopping 56-13 win in the Section 1-1A championship game.
So to say the Cardinals are flying high is, well, an understatement.
"They are very hot coming in," Clark noted. "The number one thing which jumps out at you is their team speed.
"It's not just one or two players, either, it's four or five who are burners."
Seniors Blake Langerud and Kyle Filzen are the biggest threats on the Cardinals' side of the ball.
Langerud has recorded 1,186 rushing yards and scored 15 touchdowns, while quarterback Filzen has completed only 38 percent of his passes, but 16 of them have gone for touchdowns.
"They kind of lull you to sleep with their rushing game, then take their shots, especially after a turnover," Clark said.
"Usually when they throw the ball, they are going for broke and those 16 passing touchdowns tell you that."
Against Dawson-Boyd, the Cardinals used a 50-yard punt return and an interception to account for two of their three touchdowns in a span of just six minutes.
"The biggest key for our defense is to remain disciplined," Clark said. "With their counter runs, we need to stay home and play our positions. We can't be overly aggressive and we need to control our gaps.
"Most of all, we need to tackle well, because if we don't, they will be gone."
But everything Clark said is key for his defense, as is their strength.
Mahnomen doesn't tackle the ball carrier with just one tackler.
Instead it's a Maroon gaggle of tacklers bringing down a runner.
Their discipline is the key factor to their defensive success this season, and they will need it come Saturday.
"Our secondary can't bite on their play action," Clark said.
"Again, we need to be disciplined. That's been key for us all year."
The Indians have also been an offensive juggernaut, as they control the ball effectively with a good ground game.
Senior quarterback Jacob Pavek has scored 27 rushing touchdowns and netted 1,156 yards on 131 attempts (8.8 ypc). Junior Bob Bjorge has tallied 978 yards on 121 attempts, as well.
Those offensive numbers could be much more bloated, but in the majority of games this season, the starters were on the sidelines watching another blowout victory.
But that will not always be the case, as Mahnomen found out last Saturday in their close 26-20 win over Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City.
"It was an eye-opener," said senior running back Bryce Penner. "We'll work on some things in practice and it's going to be a big challenge.
"But we'll be ready."
Last year, the Indians were hindered by five turnovers against Dawson-Boyd and this time around, Mahnomen is looking to take care of the ball better.
In the semifinal win over ACGC, the Indians still had three turnovers, something Clark is looking to correct.
"The thing with this team is they know they made mistakes and they will work hard in correcting them," the Mahnomen coach said.
"The experience of being there before will be an advantage. Playing in the semifinals (compared) to the finals is a different mindset."
It's a mindset the Indians hope will bring home championship No. 7.