Trevor Knapp led the Rhinelander High School football team onto the field prior to a non-conference football game against Wausau East at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Sept. 13. The Hodags are off to a 4-0 start ahead of a showdown against fellow 4-0 Medford tomorrow night in Medford. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Both Rhinelander and Medford are off to 4-0 starts in the 2019 season. Both teams have been predicated on putting up big numbers on the ground while stopping the run. Here’s how both teams stack up heading into Friday night’s contest in Medford:
9/19/2019 7:30:00 AM Clash of the heavyweights No. 10 Hodags, No. 3 Raiders to meet in pivotal GNC tilt
There will be no Great Northern Conference championship trophy handed out following Friday night's big Week 5 tilt between unbeatens Rhinelander and Medford at Raider Field, but whoever comes out of the contest with the win will have taken a signficant step toward claiming the conference crown.
It's not the showdown for the conference title most predicted heading into the season. Medford was a consensus runner-up finisher in both the GNC Media Poll and by WisSports.net, while Rhinelander was picked to finish sixth in the conference by the media and seventh by WSN.
The narrative has changed now.
Medford, off to a 4-0 start, is currently ranked third in the state in the WisSports.Net/WFCA Division 3 coaches poll. Rhinelander is also off to a 4-0 start and made its debut in the D3 poll at No. 10 on Tuesday.
One of these teams will be 5-0 by the end of Friday night and may have the inside track toward the Great Northern Conference title.
"If we're not going to challenge this team, who is going to challenge them?" RHS football coach Aaron Kraemer asked, rhetorically. "Right now, they're like the midseason champion-elect. Medford's come out so strong beating Rice Lake and Chippewa Falls. Right now, they're they team everyone's looking at. They're the D3 No. 3. They're the team to beat in the GNC. So, if not us, then who? That's what we've been talking about this week. We've got to stand up to the challenge."
The numbers have been similar for both teams in their torrid starts to the season. Both are averaging more than 31 points per game, while allowing less than a touchdown per contest. Both offenses are averaging more than 250 yards per game on the ground and more than 310 yards per game overall. Both defenses combined in holding opponents under 200 yards per game.
For Kraemer's upstart Hodags a road showdown at Medford marks the toughest test of the season.
"It's exciting to go into this game, against a conference-championship type team," he said. "It's exciting to be playing against a team that could be playoff eligible after this week. It's exciting to walk in there and take one more step toward our ultimate goal. It's exciting to challenge ourselves against high level competition."
Here are five storylines to follow in tomorrow night's GNC showdown.
Battle of the backs
Friday's matchup features two of the top running backs in the Great Northern Conference last year - Drake Martin for Rhinelander and Ean Wilson for Medford.
Martin was the GNC rushing champion a season ago, rushing for 861 yards while Wilson was third in the conference with 796 yards, just behind teammate Garrett Hill (804 yards), who graduated.
The two show all indications of being the GNC's top rushers again this year. Through four games, Wilson has rushed for 628 yards and 12 touchdowns while Martin has rushed for 658 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Both had big games last week. Wilson rushed 25 times for 148 yards and four scores in a 49-7 win at Lakeland, while Martin carried 23 times for 144 yards and four scores, and also added a receiving touchdown, in a 31-13 win over Wausau East.
"Defensively, we just have to stand up to the task, play as physical as we did last week and tackle the running back," Kraemer said. "Ean Wilson, great running back, and probably somebody who's going to challenge Drake for all-conference spot at running back, if not player of the year."
The only difference is when the two backs have faced each other.
Wilson, has rushed for 283 yards and three touchdowns combined in the last two meetings against the Hodags while Martin has been held to 88 yards and a score - that included a career-low stat line of eight carries for 18 yards when the teams met in 2017.
Playing Medford's offense is a trip back to the mid 20th century. The Raiders use three primary looks on offense, a single wing formation in which the ball is snapped directly to Wilson more than 90 percent of the time (think the Wildcat formation popularized by the Miami Dolphins in the early 2010s). The team also uses a Triple I formation with three backs behind the quarterback, and a straight T formation near the goal line.
Kraemer said there is not much of a secret as to what Medford wants to do, as it tries to send more blockers to the point of attack than the defense has players who can stop them. That's accomplished through overloads, sweeps and powers. The fact that Medford can run the same plays out of multiple different formations is what makes the Raiders difficult to play against.
"They do what great offensive minds want to do. They have a package of plays and they can run it out of various formations," Kraemer said. "They do a good job of doing that. You talk about the different formations that they have, they run the same plays out of those and they make sure they're good at them. They're a well-coached team. They're one that's going to show you the variation and when you think you've figured it out, they're going to give you the counter punch to that."
Wilson has produced the bulk of Medford's offense this season. More than half of the team's running plays have gone to him. Wingback Emett Grunwald (57 carries, 290 yards, 1 TD) has typically been the change of pace back with the counter and quarterback Nate Retterath has been proficient when called upon to pass, completing 18 of 31 passes for 229 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Beating the blitz
Medford's defense is perhaps the most aggressive in the Great Northern Conference. Using a base 5-2 package with defensive ends that stand up at the line of scrimmage like outside linebackers, the Raiders blitz more than any other team in the conference.
"It offers us a similar challenge to last week," Kraemer said. "That's the thing about this team, it offers us a similar challenge. Last week, Wausau East wanted to walk up a player and play us in a 5-2 look. They wanted to play us similarly in pass coverage. Again, it's just another set up in the challenge. It's a similar offense, similar defense and one we should be prepared for and ready for."
One of those outside linebacker/defensive end hybrids, Grunwald, has been Medford's most dynamic player so far this season with six tackles for loss, including two sacks.
The middle of Medford's defense its the most active. The top four leading tacklers on the team are inside linebackers Blaine Seidl and Wilson, along with safeties Colton Surek and Blaze Kesan.
Staying in the moment
One difference between the two programs is experience in big games.
With a win, Medford would become playoff eligible for the eighth time in the last night years, and put itself in the driver's seat to win its fifth conference title since 2012.
Rhinelander, conversely, hasn't sniffed a conference title since 1989 and this year's crop of seniors were still in elementary school the last time the Hodags reached the playoffs (2012).
For the Hodags, it's the biggest test to date of how the culture of the program has changed and Kraemer said the key to success comes down to two words - believe and compete.
"If we believe in ourselves, believe in our culture and believe in what we've done the first weeks and we really believe we are who we think we are, then we'll be able to do it. If we go out and we compete against these guys, we don't give them anything and we don't bow down to who they are, that's what you have to do," he said.
This week starts a string of three consecutive homecoming games for the Hodags. Road homecoming games at Medford and Mosinee bookend Rhinelander's own homecoming matchup against Antigo next week.
Rhinelander spoiled Medford's homecoming in 2010, beating the Raiders 16-14. It's the Hodags only win over Medford since joining the GNC.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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