MINNEAPOLIS — Prior to warmups at the Section 4 9-Man final nearly two weeks ago, several players from the Hancock football team were wonderstruck upon walking on the field at the Fargodome.
Emerging victorious that afternoon against Brandon-Evansville and later capturing the program’s first triumph at the state tournament against Renville County West, the Owls will be greeted with a grander stage.
At 11:30 a.m. Thursday from U.S. Bank Stadium, Hancock will take on Mountain Iron-Buhl in the semifinals, with the winner earning a spot in the Prep Bowl.
“Walking onto (Fargodome) for some of us was a big ‘awe’ moment. Now going to the Bank, multiple that by two,” senior wide receiver/defensive back Daniel Milander told the Tribune. “It’s just a way bigger stadium, so hopefully we don’t let it distract us and we just go out and play our game.
While it will be Hancock’s first time stepping into the home of the Vikings, this game is familiar territory for the Rangers, who advanced to the state semifinal last season.
The Section 7 champions enter Thursday’s contest with a 10-1 record and are ranked third in offense after averaging 45 points per game. The engine to their supercharged offense is Dillon Drake, who rushed for 246 yards on 26 carries in the team’s 42-6 quarterfinal victory over South Ridge.
A threat in the passing game as well as a menace on the defensive end, Drake paced Mountain Iron-Buhl with 19 total touchdowns, including a 25-yard interception return score last week. However, the senior running back poses the most issues for opposing defenses on the ground. With a big and strong frame, Drake has an explosive running style that can easily be just as bruising in between the tackles as it can result in speedy darts to the outside. Interestingly enough, coming off a 228-yard showing against RCW, Hancock senior running back Tyler Timmerman is almost a spitting image to the Rangers star. But even with Timmerman at their disposal, due to the number of players that play on both sides of the field, the Owls have had a difficult time replicating Drake’s potential impact.
“It does help, it kind of gives you a little bit of an idea,” Owls head coach Chad Christianson said. “I think their kid is a little bit taller; I think I saw that he was 6-foot-3. 205 pounds, but very similar running style to Tyler. It’s one of those things too though that our No. 1 (defense) doesn’t get to go against Tyler in the backfield a whole lot. So, they know what he does when they’re blocking for him and stuff like that. But to see it live coming at you, it’s kind of tough to recreate.”
Game-planning for a high-powered running attack isn’t anything new for the Owls, who played in a district where teams predominantly ran the ball. But, Mountain Iron-Buhl poses a significantly tougher challenge with the amount of packages out of the pistol and shotgun formations.
Through 12 pistol plays in the first half against South Ridge, the team gave the ball to Drake 11 times, but mixed it up between straight hand-offs and option pitches. Under shotgun, the Rangers are even more dangerous thanks to a variety of motions, option looks and zone-reads, opening up the skill set of freshman quarterback Asher Zubich, the son of head coach Dan Zubich, who has more than 1,500 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.
“They have a really young and good quarterback for a freshman,” Milander said. “I think he’ll be a phenomenal player once he’s older and he’ll be way better than what he is now.”
Hauling in eight catches for touchdowns, senior wide receiver Aidan Bissonnette is Zubich’s favorite target.
Ranked 17th in the state at 16.3 points per game, the Ranger defense isn’t as mighty as the offense, but still has its strengths.
Dealing with South Ridge’s wishbone-heavy offense, Mountain Iron-Buhl often brought six players in the box and rushed four off the line. At times, the Rangers’ middle linebacker lined up deep, occasionally making the team susceptible gains up the middle, but on runs to the edge, MI-B linebackers and defensive backs were all quick to the ball. When the Panthers switch to a shotgun formation with three wide receivers and two running backs in the backfield, the offense still was halted.
“They’ve got some kids that like to come down hill and like to hit,” Christianson said. “It will be interesting for us to see how exactly they line up. They haven’t faced a whole lot of teams this year that try to spread it out real wide ... Hopefully, we can get them out in space and get some angles on the blocks and make sure we maintain them. They’ve got a couple of players that are real physical and we’ll have to make sure that we get on those guys if we want to be successful.”
The winner between Hancock and Mountain Iron-Buhl will make its first appearance to the Prep Bowl and face the winner between Win-E-Mac and Mountain Lake Area at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, from U.S. Bank Stadium.
State 9-man semifinals
(At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis)
Mountain Iron-Buhl (10-1) vs. Hancock (12-0), 11:30 a.m. Thursday
Win-E-Mac (12-0) vs. Mountain Lake Area (12-0), 9 a.m. Friday