Rhinelander’s Max Spaulding attempts to break up a pass intended for Antigo’s Alec Hotchkiss during the 85th Bell Game at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Sept. 27. The Hodags’ secondary will be put to the test Friday night against Mosinee’s offense, led by quarterback Trey Fitzgerald who leads the state with 1,742 passing yards through six weeks of the regular season. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Drake Martin carries the ball during the 85th Bell Game against Antigo at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Sept. 27. Friday’s matchup against Mosinee appears to favor Martin and the Hodags’ ground game. Martin rushed for a career-high 291 yards against the Indians last year and Mosinee’s defense is averaging nearly 298 rushing yards per game this season.
10/3/2019 7:32:00 AM Pigskin preview week 7: Rhinelander at Mosinee After emotional Bell Game win Hodags focus on Mosinee, playoff berth
The Rhinelander High School football team has checked three major goals off its 2019 list. With last Friday's 20-10 win over Antigo, the Hodags now hold the trophy in both of their rivalry series, having defeated Lakeland in the Axe Game last month. Also, last Friday's win ensured Rhinelander's first winning season since 1994.
But there are bigger goals on the horizon, including getting to the playoffs for only the third time in school history. It will take one win over the next three weeks to become playoff eligible. Rhinelander's first crack to get into the postseason comes Friday night against preseason GNC-favorite Mosinee.
The Hodags got to enjoy their Bell Game victory for a little longer than the standard 24 hours coach Aaron Kraemer preaches. Members of the team painted Gene Shepard's Bell green during a pep assembly in front of the RHS student body Tuesday afternoon. However that was the last of the celebration as all attention has turned to the Indians, who come into Friday night's game 4-2 on the season following a 45-35 win over Lakeland last week.
"Now it's over and we're going on to Mosinee and looking at what we can do to make the experience even more special," Kraemer said. "(Monday) I talked with the team that we've checked off so many goals, but now is our opportunity to keep this thing rolling and keep what has been a special season alive. That's the goal for the last three weeks of the season. We need to get ourselves into the playoffs and it starts this week with Mosinee."
After Mosinee, the Hodags return home to face Merrill (1-5) and then finish the season at Ashland (0-6). Though Rhinelander will have a better record than each of its final three opponents to close out the regular season, Kraemer insists that none of the final three opponents can be overlooked.
"Of those teams, in the five years that I've been here, we've beaten one, one time, out of the 15 times that we've played them (Ashland, 2017)," he said. "I'm not going to go into any of these games counting my chickens before they hatch and I'm not going to look at any of these opponents as teams that we should beat, because that's not the case at all. Based on records, one could say that we should beat them but that's not how we view it. We view it as an opponent we haven't beaten in a long time and that's the way I want our players to look at it."
Here are five storylines heading into Friday's game at Veterans Memorial Field in Mosinee.
Rhinelander is allowing 82.3 yards per game in the passing game so far this season but has yet to face a test like Mosinee's spread attack.
Senior quarterback Trey Fitzgerald leads the state of Wisconsin in passing yards, throwing for 1,742 yards in only six games this season. He's completing passes at a 66-percent clip (120 or 181) and has thrown 13 touchdowns compared to only six interceptions.
Fitzgerald has a stable of receivers to throw to, though his favorite target as been Drayton Lehman, whose 45 catches are the third most in the state through six weeks. Cyle Kowalski is not far behind. His 38 catches are tied for 10th in the state, and his team-high 632 receiving yards are the ninth-best total in Wisconsin. Throw in Michal Dul (22-410) and it's a tough passing game to stop.
Kraemer said it's going to take all 11 players on defense this week to slow down Mosinee. The Indians' passing game is predicated on timing, with most of Fitzgerald's throwing coming off a three-step drop from a shotgun snap. Up front, the onus will be to get pressure to disrupt Fitzgerald's timing, while not letting him do damage with his legs (79 carries, 319 yards, 14 touchdowns). On the back end, the game plan will be about making Mosinee earn its points.
"We have to make sure we don't give up the big plays, put them in situations they are not comfortable with and I think we can win the game if we do that," Kraemer said.
For as prolific as Mosinee's offense has been, its defense has been suspect at times this season. The Indians have allowed 34 points or more in four of their six games so far this season.
What's more, teams have rushed for nearly 298 yards per game against the Indians. That should bode well for Drake Martin and the RHS ground game. Martin rushed for a career-high 291 yards and two touchdowns against the Indians last year.
"I think they're young up front and they've been exploited in the run game," Kraemer said. "I've seen three or four tapes on them and, in all of them, they seem to struggle with run defense. That gives us an advantage because we have a good running offense with our three-headed monster (Martin, Walker Hartman and Peyton Erikson) in the backfield, along with our ability to play-action pass. It's a good matchup for us, offensively."
Martin, who passed 3,000 rushing yards for his career in last week's Bell Game win, needs 175 yards tomorrow night to reach 1,000 yards on the ground for the third straight season.
A test of tempo
Given Mosinee's quick strike passing game and Rhinelander's propensity to ground and pound, Friday night's game will likely boil down to a contrast of tempos and styles.
Kraemer said his counterpart, Mosinee head coach Craig Martens, will likely, "want to turn this thing into a track meet."
Conversely, Rhinelander will likely look to slow the game down, control the game on the ground and limit the number of times Fitzgerald and the high-flying Mosinee offense touch the football.
"We need to control the football and be smart with it," Kraemer said. I think it's a huge part of the game to be able to control that football, keep our defense off the field and, most importantly, keep their offense off the field and from scoring points."
This game looms large for Rhinelander in terms of the impact it could make later in the season.
For starters, Rhinelander is still in position to earn a share of the Great Northern Conference title, but would have to run the table over the final three weeks and then have Mosinee knock off Medford next week.
If that happens, Rhinelander would be in position to share the GNC title with Medford and Mosinee.
Of more immediate concern, winning Friday night could give the Hodags a leg up on Mosinee if a number of Great Northern Conference schools are placed in the same bracket for the WIAA tournament, which has been the trend in recent years.
"The thing that we're thinking about is getting the one (win) that we need (to become playoff eligible) but yes, the place that you finish in the GNC, I think, is going to determine if you have a home game," Kraemer said. "One or two probably gets a home game. If we finish the rest of the season on a high note and win out, for sure, we'll probably have a home game to enjoy as a fan base."
Last team standing
With Rhinelander's win last week over Antigo, Mosinee is the lone team remaining in the conference that it has not won a conference game against.
Rhinelander did defeat Antigo in 2014, but in a Week 1 non-conference contest.
The Hodags are 0-9 against the Indians since joining the GNC in 2010. Their closest call came in 2012 when they lost a Week 2 contest at home, 21-14.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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