ROCHESTER, Minn. — Jackson Nibbelink put on a show as Winona cruised to victory over Albert Lea 33-7 in their season-opening football game on Friday at Rochester Regional Sports Center.
The Winhawks’ senior quarterback was 7-for-9 passing for 177 yards and three touchdowns while adding 32 yards and two scores on the ground. All five touchdowns and all but one completion came in the first half as Winona’s starting offense only played one series in the second half. He threw scoring strikes of 15, 67, and 24 yards with two going to Austin Mlynczak and the 67-yarder going to Dayne Gamoke. And averaged nearly 20 yards per pass attempt.
“My adrenaline was pumping,” Nibbelink said. “We had great play calling, they put us in the right position to make plays. I got great blocking from my offensive line in front of me and I had great receivers to catch the ball. I’m blessed to have these guys around me.”
The Winhawks tried hard to establish the running game early, handing the ball to senior bell cow running back Trevor Pomeroy nine times on their first two drives. All four plays on the opening drive were Pomeroy runs, but a fourth-and-1 try came up short and they turned it over on downs.
The Hawks took to the sky from there and the offense took off. They ran the ball just four more times in the first half with two being quarterback sneaks inside the 1. And while the Tigers sold out to stop the run, Nibbelink exploited their exposed back end.
“(Nibbelink) did a nice job,” Winona coach John Cassellius said. “They were blitzing two or three guys every time trying to stop that run game. We created a few run lanes, but eventually we just said, ‘If they’re not going to give any help, we’re just going to throw the ball,’ which is the opposite of what we normally do.”
The Winhawks inexperienced receiving corps acquitted itself well and showed that it could be a force going forward. The top three receivers — who entered the season with just 240 combined yards — displayed the ability to get themselves open, show sure hands, and make big plays. Mlynczak caught four passes for 55 yards to go along with his two scores. On top of his 67-yard score, Gamoke beat his defender on another long passing try, but the QB left it just short and let the defensive back catch up. And sophomore Thomas Modjeski caught a 37-yard pass and drew a pass interference after getting open on another long try.
“Our receivers came in way underrated,” Nibbelink said. “There’s a lot of people doubting our receiving corps and I don’t know why. I don’t know why anyone would doubt these guys in the first place — they’re some of the best athletes on the field. We just came out and did what we know how to do.”
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The Winhawks defense stifled the Tigers, allowing them to travel just 40 yards in the first half before sprinkling in the second team after the break. Their first drive was the longest of the first half, getting to the WSHS 22 before turning the ball over on downs. Their next four drives went for just 6, minus-7, 11, and 11 yards and included a blocked punt by Aaron Witt and a fumble recovery by Jacob Heftman.
“The defense had some really good communication,” Cassellius said. “They had a couple of longer runs — whether it was a missed tackle or a missed assignment. But those things are going to happen. You’re going to give up some big plays but how are you going to respond to those? It’s all about how you respond to adversity — whether you fumble or give up a first down or give up a big play, you’ve just got to focus back in.”
The Winhawks were able to work on developing their depth in the second half as their backup played all but the early third quarter after the break. Freshman running back Dominic Davis ran the ball five times for 30 yards, while sophomore quarterback Jacob Heftman ran for 30 yards on four carries and attempted one pass.
“It was great to get some of the younger guys in,” Cassellius said. “They were out there playing against some of their bigger guys still and they were out there battling. The only thing you can do is go out there and play hard and battle and give it everything you have and that’s what they were doing.”
The Winhawks are back in action next Friday as they host Faribault. The Falcons opened the season with a 19-12 home loss to Austin.