DANUBE — Through the early moments its 9-Man Section 2 final victory against Nicollet, the explosive Renville County West offense was stuck in neutral.
The Jaguars eventually righted the ship.
It’s something they know they’ll need to continue as they prepare for their first state quarterfinal berth.
Defeating Nicollet 28-14 last Thursday, Renville County West achieved history by earning its first trip to the state tournament.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the Jaguars face Hancock in a state quarterfinal from Bison Field West Football Stadium in Buffalo.
The two teams each own 11-0 records. While the Owls are enjoying a five-win improvement in route to their first state appearance since 1990, the Jaguars are in the midst of an absolute reversal of fortunes.
Suffering five defeats by 20 or more points, RCW limped its way to a 1-8 campaign in 2018. This season, the team is ranked fifth in points allowed per game and is seventh in points scored in 9-Man.
Out-scoring their opponents by four touchdowns per game, the Jaguars have bulldozed through squads thanks to their big-play capability.
Running most of its offense out of the spread, the Section 2 champs have produced 23 touchdowns of 30 more of more yards. Of those 23 plays, 15 have come from the passing game.
“There are so many different guys that have that ability to really run and catch the deep ball. And on top of that, you have a quarterback who has a great arm that can get the ball down the field,” RCW head coach Ryan Hebrink said. “When you’re looking at all those different weapons that you have, it’s hard as a coach not to be able to call that at least a few times a game.
“When you think the opportunity is going to be there and maybe you could get a sense that the defense is going to be coming up, it’s just a matter of having the personnel that’s out there to be able to do that.”
The Jaguars have four receivers who have caught 30 or more balls this season. Junior wideout Riley Ashburn leads the pack, snagging 38 balls for 806 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. His 21.2 yards-per-reception average is the best on the team.
Fellow junior Brandan Hoberg is right behind with 37 catches for 659 yards and a team-best 12 scores through the air. Meanwhile, Aalderks and Kolker have each added 31 grabs for more than 400 receiving yards.
But all of those gaudy numbers didn’t seem to matter for a long time against Nicollet.
Great second half
With two punts, two turnovers and a turnover on downs on their first five possessions, the Jaguars, who entered the section final contest averaging more than 40 points per game, clung to an 8-6 advantage before receiving the second-half kickoff.
RCW had been forced to string together plays as the Raiders defense did a solid job of keeping everything in front of them and double-covering their opponent’s deep threats in avoidance of the big play. Outside of a third-down completion to senior running back Axel Zaragoza that went for 30 yards, all of RCW’s deep shots came up empty.
But as everyone inside of Waconia’s Wildcat Stadium soon learned, there’s only so much a defense can do before the Jaguars eventually land a haymaker.
Two minutes into the second half, senior quarterback Jack Howard dropped back to pass and lofted a spiral down the Nicollet sidelines. Facing single coverage, senior wide receiver Conner Aalderks sprinted underneath the ball and hauled it in in stride for a 49-yard touchdown reception.
“Their corners were starting to bite in on the run, so I just went for a fake block and ran down the field,” Aalderks said. “Jack made a hell of a throw and then the rest is history.”
On its lone scoring drive of the first half, RCW was taking what the defense was giving, moving the ball with short out-passes and tough-nosed carries in the running game. Junior running back Jaden Kolker ended the drive with a 2-yard plunge to the goal line on fourth down.
Kolker’s emergence kept the Raiders honest. After showing a variety of looks earlier in the contest, Nicollet started to crash the box to defend the run. The Jaguars coaching staff took notice, called in the play to Howard and the rest of the players executed.
“They were playing a man (defense) and they were playing off (the receiver) about five yards,” Howard said. “We had a hitch-and-go called. If we could just get the (defender) to turn his hips a little bit, I knew Conner had the speed to get past him. ... I know if Conner could get a little separation, I could hit him for a touchdown.”
‘My coach trusts me’
The team’s offensive production all starts at the quarterback position.
In his third year as the team’s starter, Howard is enjoying his finest season. The senior has completed 58 percent of his passes (152-for-262) for 2,568 yards while putting up 36 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, six of which came in two games against Nicollet. Additionally, he is third on the team with 242 rushing yards on 62 carries and four touchdowns.
Overall, his touchdown numbers have doubled from 2018 (17 passing, three rushing).
Explaining his break-out season, Howard credited his teammates, but added his ability to examine the field prior to the snap is the biggest difference from earlier in his career to now.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing 10th grade year when I went out there,” Howard said. “I just can read defenses a lot better now and I actually know what’s going on ‘cause I’ve been doing it for a while.
“I’ve always had the receivers, so that’s always helped. But this year, the guys have worked hard and have been playing for a while, too. So they have the experience, too, and it just makes us much better.”
Howard’s improved understanding of the pre-snap element has turned him almost into another coach.
After breaking the huddle, the senior scans the field and will pay particular attention to how the defense is lined up against his primary receiver. If he feels comfortable with the play, Howard will proceed and either hit his primary target or go through his progressions. Unlike some, Howard has the option to change the play on the fly.
“We always feel like no one will see the field better than the quarterback. They’re standing back there and they are able to see that,” Hebrink said. “That’s why Jack has that opportunity, giving him that free reign that if he does see something, he can make that change.... You’re going to get a little more comfortable with that each year and know that he’s had three years of playing, that experienced has helped.”
During his junior season, Howard was granted audible responsibilities on a limited basis, but more freedom has been granted during his senior campaign.
“It’s nice that my coach trusts me enough to be able to call a play if I see something ‘cause he doesn’t always know for sure if they are going to run the same defense,” Howard said. “So if he calls a play and I know, in particular, that a run play isn’t going to work or we’re not going to have enough guys to block and they have too many guys in the box, then I can switch to a different run play or a pass play. It’s just nice, ‘cause he trusts me about that and knows that I will make the right call.”
What else to expect
Howard and the team’s long passing plays get the attention of opposing teams, but much of RCW’s passing attack is predicated on a strong running attack.
The Jaguars average 5.1 yards per carry and have accounted for 19 touchdowns on the ground. Kolker leads the running game, piling up a team-high 781 rushing yards on 149 carries,
“He runs hard and he runs well,” Hebrink said of Kolker. “He has great vision and he’s just a very good running back. When you have a guy like that, it’s going to set up those passing routes later in the game or later in that same drive, just kind of depending on the feel of the game.”
Every facet of the Jaguars offense will have to be in gear Friday when it faces Hancock, the top-rated team in the QRF (Quality Results Formula) used for rankings by Minnesota-Scores.net.
Often switching between three-man and four-man defensive fronts, the Owls have held their opponents to two touchdowns or less in nine games this season.
Last facing off in 2016, the two teams do not have much recent history against one another. Once each team advanced to state, the coaching staffs were given game film to prepare.
“We’ve watched through them and I’m sure they’ve watched through them as well,” Hebrink said. “But when you look at a season and all of these games, that’s a lot of film to go through.
“As a team gets going down the road, you’re going to see some similarities. But, every game there’s going to be a new little wrinkle from each team. It’s certainly nice to have (video), but you’re never sure what you are going to see come game time.”
State 9-Man playoffs
South Ridge (8-2) vs. Mountain Iron-Buhl (9-1), 7 p.m. at Duluth Public School Stadium
Renville County West (11-0) vs. Hancock (11-0), 7 p.m. at Buffalo High School
Win-E-Mac (11-0) vs. Warren-Alvarado-Oslo (8-3), 7 p.m. at Moorhead High School
Grand Meadow (10-1) vs. Mountain Lake Area (11-0), 7 p.m. at Wescott Field/Packer Dome, Austin