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Prep football: Wildcats face off with Rebels Saturday at St. Cloud State

As stunning as New London-Spicer’s rushing attack has been this season, the Wildcats could see a Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton team that is their equal when it comes to churning out yards on the ground.

Where NLS will have the advantage in their Class AAA quarterfinals game is the Wildcats’ ability to throw the ball efficiently and effectively.

The Wildcats and Rebels meet at 5 p.m. Saturday at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium.

With flashy back Adam Essler at the throttle, 8-2 NLS has cranked out an average of 425 total yards and more than 44 points per game.

Essler is having a spectacular year, with 1,753 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns on just 205 touches (an 8.6-yard average). The Wildcats have run for almost 3,000 yards, and Ben Beuning (65-301, 9 TDs) and Jarrett Hatlestad (54-387-3) have been solid backfield complements to Essler.

But Chad Johnson, the 8-2 Rebels’ top back, has been almost as good as Essler this season. He’s run for 1,579 yards and 20 scores on just 203 carries, an average of 7.8 yards per carry.

And he’s not all DGF will bring against the Wildcats. Back Brandon Wayne has rushed for 618 yards and 6 touchdowns and Joe Flatt has carried 56 times for 475 yards and 3 TDs. The Rebels have actually outgained NLS on the ground, with 3,037 rushing yards in 10 games.

That may be a concern for the Wildcats, whose two losses this season came against Glencoe-Silver Lake and St. Peter teams that could pound the ball.

What probably won’t frighten the NLS defense is DGF’s passing attack, and NLS’ solid passing attack could serve as the tipping point in the game.

DGF quarterback Zach Nelson hasn’t had to throw much, with the Rebels grinding down opponents with their running game. But he hasn’t been effective when asked to throw, completing just 24 of 64 throws (38 percent) for 407 yards. He’s thrown 6 touchdowns but also 6 interceptions. Johnson is his leading receiver, with 8 catches for 166 yards.

Nelson’s counterpart, NLS’ Ryan Vraa, is the opposite of low efficiency.

Vraa is completing almost 70 percent of his throws (84 of 122) for 1,230 yards, 15 touchdowns and he’s been intercepted 7 times.

Vraa has reliable, athletic and fast targets in Shane Zylstra (33-553, 10 touchdowns) and Hatlestad (27-340, 4 TDs).

What will make the matchup even more interesting is that both defenses aren’t as stingy as their offenses are prolific.

DGF allows almost 170 rushing yards per game and 225 total yards. The Rebels don’t allow a lot of passing yards but opponents haven’t thrown a lot against them.

The Rebels, who score about 27 points per game, have allowed just 11 points per game and they have surrendered more than 12 points in only five games this season.

Garrett Pemelton leads the Rebels with 70 tackles, including 51 solo stops, and Flatt has 65 total tackles and Wayne has 62.

The Wildcats live a much more flamboyant existence, scoring the 45 points per game but also giving up more than 21 per game. It can get wild following the Wildcats from the sidelines or the stands.

NLS has scored 105 points in their two playoff victories. Five times this season the Wildcats have surpassed 50 points.

But all the quick scores have given opponents plenty of opportunities to counter, especially when the opposition has plenty of offensive talent, too.

For example, NLS defeated Annandale 42-38 during the regular season, and there were fireworks during the rematch last week. Annandale scored 46 points and still lost by three scores, 66-46.

Beuning and Essler are NLS’ only two-way players, with Beuning leading the Wildcats with 56 solo tackles and 79 total stops. Essler and Austin Adams both have 56 total tackles, Jarod Vossen is second on the team with 58 total tackles and Trey Ausvold is third with 57. Beuning, Austvold and Essler all have intercepted passes and Adams has a fumble recovery.

It’s not a top-heavy eight-team field in Class AAA, with NLS and Fairmont (8-2) entering the tournament tied at No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll, and DGF, Pierz (8-2) and Proctor (8-2) coming in unranked.

Powers such as Class AAA runnerup Rochester Lourdes (9-1), five-time state champion GSL (8-2) and No. 5-ranked St. Croix Lutheran (8-2) are considered the favorites.

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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