Football: A defensive battle awaits Willmar, Marshall
Tigers holding teams to 4.4 points per game going into the Section 2AAAA semis
MARSHALL — Don’t expect a lot of points on the board when No. 2-seeded Willmar and No. 3-seeded Marshall teams face off on Saturday.
Playing in the Section 2AAAA football semifinals, the Cardinals are facing the No. 2-ranked defense in all of Class AAAA. Coming into the game, the undefeated Tigers are giving up 4.4 points per game and have four shutouts. They have allowed double digits just once this season.
“Their defense has been really outstanding,” said Willmar head coach Jon Konold. “It shows with how many points they’ve given up and then watching them on film.
“They really, really run to the football. They’re really aggressive; when they arrive (at the ball), they arrive in a bad mood.”
From the onset, a dominant defense was the Tigers’ goal. And they hope for another elite effort against Willmar at 6 p.m. Saturday at Mattke Field at the Schwan’s Regional Event Center.
“We decided this summer we were really going to emphasize defense first and play some of our guys more on defense and try and rest them on offense,” said Marshall head coach Terry Bahlmann, who’s in his 19th year with the team. “Obviously it’s worked out. Our defense has done a great job all year.”
It will be the first matchup of Cardinals vs. Tigers since the 2010 Section 2AAAA semifinals. Marshall won that game, 27-18.
“Our section is probably the toughest section in AAAA from top to bottom and we know Willmar is going to be a quality opponent,” Bahlmann said. “It should be a lot of fun.”
Constant pressure is the name of the game for Marshall’s defense. Playing three down linemen and bringing any number of linebackers on the blitz, the Tigers have 22 sacks.
“My son Brad’s our defensive coordinator and he’s done a great job using what we have,” Terry said. “We don’t have much size at all — I think we go about 220, 240 and 190 across the front three — but with that, it gives us great quickness on the defensive side and the ability to move people around and attack from different areas.”
Courtesy of that pressure, Marshall has forced 14 takeaways, including 10 interceptions. Bahlmann said the bulk of his returning players from last season came in the defensive backfield.
“You have your protection set to where you can pick up the most dangerous guys,” Konold said on slowing down the pressure. “Your backs are going to have to get involved in protection. Your tight ends are going to have to be involved in protection. You got to get the ball out with some rhythm.”
Facing bigger runners like Willmar’s Ramero Trevino and Cullen Gregory, Bahlmann points to his team’s 8-7 Week 2 win over Waseca. During the regular season, Marshall was 4-0 in games decided by 10 points or less.
“We’re expecting that kind of tight, physical game (with Willmar),” Bahlmann said. “Gregory is probably bigger than all but one of our defenders. He’s a great challenge; we need to make sure we get him stopped and not let him fall forward for those two or three yards. Those two guys seem to finish off their runs and get that extra yard each time. If you’re in that kind of slug-fest game, we have to make sure we get them stuffed and try to get them driven backwards.”
On offense, the Tigers take the running back by committee approach to the extreme. Marshall has used an average of nine rushers per game for 185.5 yards on the ground. If there is a lead back, it’s junior Chidi Nwakama with 511 yards and seven touchdowns on 67 carries.
Marshall’s base offense is the single wing with three running backs on the field at one time. They’ll go to the wishbone in short-yardage situations and can go shotgun if they need to throw with quarterback Tyler Maeyaert. And the Tigers do not beat themselves, committing just three turnovers in the regular season.
While Willmar has the size advantage, Konold was quick to praise Marshall’s ability to block at the second level for big run plays.
“They’re really aggressive and they get on your guys really fast,” Konold said. “The best thing that I see that they do is they’re able to get to the linebackers and get those guys blocked up. They’re so quick with their quick-hitting dives and traps that those backs are by the D-line before they even know it and the linemen are on the linebackers so fast they can’t get off blocks. They’re two or three yards downfield before you know what happens. They’re so quick off the ball and they’re so good at executing that. We have to be really sharp on reading our keys and make sure our guys are being aggressive right away on the front.”
The winner of Saturday’s game plays the winner of No. 1 Hutchinson (7-1) and No. 4 Jordan (6-3). The 2AAAA championship takes place at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4 at the high seed.
“All the kids know what’s at stake,” Konold said. “You got a chance to get to the section finals, and then you got a chance to go to the state tournament. This is when the football gets really real and it elevates everybody’s excitement. We have to make sure that we’re prepared and we’re rested and ready to start the game fast.”