MINNEAPOLIS — After a look at the roster of opposing Minneota, Rushford-Peterson’s football players knew they would have their hands full before their state semifinal game even started.
The Vikings have a group of four running backs all at least six-feet tall and 175 pounds that share the load, led by an offensive line that was equally burly.
Making the matchup even more challenging is the fact that most of Rushford-Peterson’s regular season opponents play spread or run-and-gun offensive styles that differ drastically from the Vikings’ ground-and-pound philosophy.
In their week of practice, the Trojans reserves tried their best to prepare the R-P defense for what was to come, but such a thing is an impossible task.
“We can’t simulate what they do in practice, as good as our scout guys are,” head coach Davin Thompson said.
Minneota was able to utilize that strength to rush for 243 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday in a 28-8 win at U.S. Bank Stadium that ended the Trojans’ season and sent the Vikings onto the Class A Prep Bowl.
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Both teams could not get much going on their opening drives, being forced into early punts.
Early on the Trojans’ second drive, they made their first mistake of the game as senior quarterback Malachi Bunke attempted a deep pass that was off the mark and intercepted by sophomore defensive back Max Rost at the Vikings’ 23 yard line.
R-P was called for encroachment prior to the first snap, setting up Minneota at the 28-yard line, and senior running back Connor Sik slipped to the outside and out sped the Trojans down the sideline for a 72-yard touchdown to go ahead 7-0 at six minutes, and eight seconds in the first quarter.
Facing third-and-long on the ensuing drive, Bunke was hit as he started to throw and the ball fluttered through the air into the hands of senior linebacker A.J. Josephson, who ran the ball back to the 16-yard line to set up Minneota in prime field position.
Including another interception in the fourth quarter, Bunke threw three in the game, in part because of the aggressive and physical play of the Vikings’ defensive front.
“It really helped today that the defensive line could get to the quarterback and get him to throw balls up like that and make it easier for the DBs,” said Rost, who had two of those three picks.
A few plays later, Sik punched in a three-yard rush for his second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0 at 2:07 in the first.
While the Trojans were trailing by two scores early, Thompson did not feel that his defense had not performed too poorly with just one bad play and a series in which they had their backs against the wall from the start.
However, he also admits that Minneota’s players outperformed his players head-to-head.
“If you get out of position on these guys, everything’s one-on-one individual battles, you’ve got to win those battles. Today, Minneota won more of those battles than we did,” Thompson said.
The Trojans punted on each of their next two drive, but also forced a Minneota punt in between.
Following the second R-P punt, the Vikings went on a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended in an 18-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Isaac Pohlen to junior receiver Peyton Gillund for a 21-0 lead with 4:04 left until halftime.
Rushford-Peterson had a couple of its best offensive plays in the waning minutes of the half, including a 13-yard pass from Bunke to senior receiver Justin Ruberg and a 23-yard pass to senior receiver Thomas Ekern, though the Trojans were still scoreless at halftime.
Both defenses played well early in the third quarter, but Minneota broke through one final time with 49 seconds remaining when Sik scored his third rushing touchdown of the game as he shed a few would-be tacklers on a six-yard run to put the Vikings ahead 28-0.
Overall in the game, Sik had 19 carries for 174 yards and three scores as the most explosive player on either team.
With nothing left to lose, the Trojans kept taking deep shots. Their first two drives ended in a punt and an interception, but the third time was the charm as R-P finally got into the end zone.
The drive started when senior lineman Carson Thompson recovered a fumbled snap near midfield. Bunke had a handful of his best passes of the day to move the Trojans 58 yards in 1:25, capping things off with a 31-yard pass into the corner of the end zone that hit senior receiver Alex Ronnenberg in stride.
Junior Grady Hengel threw a two-point conversion to Ruberg, cutting the score to 28-8 before the Vikings ran out the clock.
Even as the game did not end in their favor, the Trojans were glad to be able to hold their heads high after refusing to buckle despite the disappointment.
“It’s hard to think about individual performances right now,” Carson Thompson said. “But being able to play our hearts out at the end and not quit is definitely something we can’t hang our heads on.”
Bunke agreed with his fellow senior teammate.
“We never quit,” Bunke said. “It’s what we stand for, so I’m very proud of us for that.”
Andrew Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @andrewjtucker16