FARGO, N.D. - Even when holding a 29-0 lead, every point counts -- eventually.
It was that one point which was enough to send the Detroit Lakes football team to its first state playoffs in a decade, after pulling out a thrilling 29-28 victory over Rocori Thursday evening inside the Fargodome.
The Class 4A No. 3 ranked and undefeated Lakers (10-0) roared out of the gates by building a 29-0 halftime advantage, only to see the No. 2 seeded Spartans (6-4) chisel away at the deficit, before making a late surge at the end of the game, but ultimately falling short by one point.
"We just battled the entire game and our defense made some big plays in the second half -- we bent, but didn't break in the second half," said a happy junior quarterback Michael Herzog, who threw two long touchdowns in the first half. "It feels good, it's the only thing you can dream about making state. It's just so nice when everything comes together."
The Lakers needed every bit of what they gained in the first half, where Herzog rushed for 97 yards in that time span, while throwing for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
Spartan quarterback Mac Mueller made things very interesting by firing back-to-back touchdown passes to Jake Huber, to pull the Spartans to within one point at 29-28, but the clock ran out after DL slotback Stephen Erb recovered the final onside kick.
"We may have gotten a little too conservative in the second half, but we did what it took to win the game," said DL head coach Flint Motschenbacher. "All 64 guys played their tails off the entire game and they took what was needed to win it."
With Rocori stacking up the box to stop the Lakers' mighty rushing attack, Motschenbacher unleashed the team's passing game in the first half.
The first strike came in the opening drive, a 55-yarder to wideout Derek Long, who beat the safety and brought the ball down to the Spartan four.
Herzog finished the drive with a two-yard plunge, which was proceeded by Rocori's second-straight punt.
Herzog then hit wide receiver Sam Champa for a 38-yard gain on third and four. Again, Herzog sucked the Spartan defense in by running to the right side, where he dumped it off to the speedy Erb, who found nothing but space down the sideline for a 36-yard touchdown.
"They were really loading up on the run, so we needed to hit our pass plays," Motschenbacher said. "It was tough to run the ball against them and we knew that coming in."
Turnovers also would be Rocori's undoing, after losing two fumbles in the game, two in the second half.
The first one came on a backwards lateral, which oddly enough, led to a safety -- which ended up being the decisive two points in the game.
In the strange occurrence of events, after a backwards lateral was recovered by DL's Brandon Dahring on the Rocori 32. The Lakers drove down to the five, where they faced a fourth and goal.
Herzog hit Long right on the goal line, but his knee hit the ground before he could reach over for the six points, thus turning the ball over on downs on the Spartan one yard line.
On the very next play, heavy pressure on Mueller resulted in an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone, thus giving the Lakers a safety and a 16-0 lead.
The defense of the Lakers were able to keep the dangerous and elusive Mueller contained for much of the game, as the Spartan QB ran for 104 yards on 19 carries, but no attempts over 13 yards.
"We just had to keep him from getting outside and make sure we tackled him," said linebacker Dylan Bremseth. "We have been very physical up front and a good tackling team, that helped tonight."
After the free kick, the Lakers put together a four play drive, which netted 45 yards and ended with senior wide receiver Kirk McLeod hauling in a 34-yard touchdown pass by Herzog, who hit him right down the seam untouched.
But that wasn't it for the first-half scoring, with another Rocori punt giving the ball to the Lakers on their own 30 with time winding down in the half.
That's when Herzog pulled off a highlight-reel 61-yard touchdown rush, which started on a third-and-one dive play.
Herzog looked to have been stuffed at the line between the tackles, but his legs kept moving and eventually, a tackle was broke, then another and another.
Soon, the junior DL quarterback was out-pacing Rocori's safeties for a 29-0 halftime lead.
"I was just looking to get the first down and the defense knew we were going to run it," Herzog said. "They jumped the gaps and got to me, but I just kept churning my legs, like you are taught to do.
"I fell away from the tacklers, stumbled and almost lost my head strap, which was hanging on by one button. I just started running and got a glimpse behind me and saw they were closing in, so I just kicked it in a little more."
The Lakers had accumulated 119 rushing yards in the first two quarters, while Herzog was 6-6 for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
Mueller, on the other hand, was 4-8 for 42 yards and one interception, which was snagged by Herzog to end Rocori's final first half drive.
But things drastically changed in the second half, as the Spartans and Mueller started making their big plays.
"Even up 29-0, I was worried going into halftime, because we knew Rocori was very explosive," Motschenbacher said.
That they were.
Mueller was 7-12 for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, while directing four touchdown-scoring drives.
By the end of the contest, Rocori outgained the Lakers by a 411-292 margin, with the vast majority of those yards coming in the second half.
The Lakers' offense went dormant, as they didn't pick up any first downs and ended the second half with negative seven yards total.
"I was probably a little too fired up at halftime, we just needed to settle down and play," Herzog said.
But the Lakers did create two key turnovers and also stopped the Spartans on a fourth down play.
Champa collected DL's second interception in the third quarter on the Laker 32, while Dahring recovered his second fumble in the game to stymie another Spartan drive.
But the Spartans controlled the ball in the second half, by picking up good chunks of yardage on first and second down.
Rocori had 20 plays alone in the third quarter, with 14 of those snapped on first down and only one third down snapped and one fourth down, all thanks in due to nine first downs.
After two touchdown runs by Alex Austad and Adam Dingmann sheered the lead down to 29-14, Rocori was held on fourth and three on the Laker 44 in the fourth quarter.
Seemingly, it looked as if the Spartans were running out of time, but on a 4th and 18 play with just under four minutes remaining, Mueller hit Huber on a slant for a 48-yard touchdown. Huber finished the game hauling in three catches for 142 yards (47.3 ypc) for two TDs.
But an overthrow in the end zone on the two-point conversion kept the DL lead to two possessions at 29-20.
The Lakers were forced to a three-and-out on the next series and Mueller didn't waste time, as he hit Huber again, this time for a 62-yard strike to trim the lead to 29-28.
The clock did finally run out on the defending state champion's chances and season on the failed onside kick attempt.
Herzog's 88 rushing yards lifts him to just 66 yards away from becoming DLHS' all-time single season rushing leader, as well.
It's the Lakers' 12th section championship and their first since 2002.
The Lakers will await the winner between Hermantown and Princeton in Section 7-4A for the state quarterfinals, which will be played next Saturday at St. Cloud State University, starting at 3 p.m.
Section 8-4A championship: (1) Detroit Lakes vs. (2) Rocori, at the Fargodome, Fargo, N.D., Thursday, Nov. 1.
Spartans 0 0 14 14 - 28
Lakers 14 15 0 0 - 29
DL: Michael Herzog 2-yard run; kick failed. 9:14, 1st quarter.
DL: Stephen Erb 36-yard pass from Herzog; Erb pass from Herzog. 3:34, 1st.
DL: Team safety. 7:16, 2nd.
DL: Kirk McLeod 34-yard pass from Herzog; Christian Tigges kick. 5:37, 2nd.
DL: Herzog 61-yard run; PAT failed. 2:11, 2nd.
Roc: Alex Austad 7-yard run; pass failed. 7:04, 3rd.
Roc: Adam Dingmann 3-yard run; Austad pass from Mac Mueller. :07, 3rd.
Roc: Jake Huber 48-yard pass from Mueller; pass failed. 3:49, 4th.
Roc: Huber 62-yard pass from Mueller; Mueller run. 1:35, 4th.
Rushing (att-yds) -- DL: Michael Herzog 30-88; Jarret Nosal 10-20; Stephen Erb 2-(-4). TOTALS: 42-104...Roc: Mac Mueller 19-104; Adam Dingmann 8-34; Ryan Tong 4-15; Alex Austad 3-15. TOTALS: 34-168.
Passing (att-comp-inc-int-yds-tds) -- DL: Herzog 11-8-3-0-188-2...Roc: Mueller 11-9-1-243-2.
Receiving (rec-yds-td) -- DL: Erb 3-43-1; Derek Long 2-59-0; Kirk McLeod 2-48-1; Sam Champa 1-38-0...Roc: Jake Huber 3-142-2; Blake Holbrook 2-39-0; Dingmann 2-32-0; Nick Thorpe 1-13-0; Derek Schlangen 1-17-0; Jeron Terres 1-0-0; Derek Kuechle 1-0-0.