Rhinelander’s Drake Martin falls on the ground after getting tackled during a football game at Veterans’ Park in Mosinee Friday, Oct. 4. Martin tweaked an ankle in a 21-20 loss to the Indians, but RHS coach Aaron Kraemer expects the Hodags’ leading rusher will be available for Friday’s home contest against Merrill. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
10/10/2019 7:30:00 AM Pigskin Preview Week 8: Merrill at Rhinelander RHS seeks redemption, playoff berth vs. Merrill
Tomorrow evening may be the last time the Rhinelander High School football team takes the field at Mike Webster Stadium this season. If that's the case, the Hodags want to make sure that they send their seniors out in style.
Rhinelander still has plenty to play for as it entertains Merrill, needing only one win in its final two contests to become playoff eligible for only the third time in school history.
Even if the Hodags win out and finish the regular season 7-2, a home playoff game is not guaranteed, especially with word that potential state powers Menomonie, West De Pere and Ashwaubenon could slip into the Division 3 bracket, based on projections by WisSports.net.
"The guys are chomping at the bit. They want to get this thing started," coach Aaron Kraemer said. "Not only because it's an opportunity to get themselves in the playoffs - which is one of the goals - but it's also senior night. It's the last home game and we're not counting on having another one. We need to step up to the challenge and send our seniors out on the right note."
Rhinelander is also eager to get the bitter taste of last week's 21-20 loss at Mosinee out of its mouth. While a couple of key plays stood out, Kraemer said, looking back at the film, a compilation of mistakes - large and small - added up to the one point that was the difference in the game.
"You look at the film, it's one thing every play, one guy every play - a couple of missed things, costly penalties. We lost by one point, but it's not the one point that defined the game at the end of it. It was a cumulative effort in the second half, and we didn't finish," he said.
Rhinelander's looking to finish undefeated at home on the regular season and faces a Merrill team that has won only once this season - a 21-point victory over winless Ashland on the road two weeks ago.
Here are five storylines to follow heading into the contest.
Two key injuries played a role in Rhinelander's ground game stalling out against Mosinee. The biggest was the ankle injury sustained by tailback Drake Martin in the second half of the contest. He was held to 22 yards on eight carries after rolling his left ankle and he checked out of the game twice due to the injury.
The good news for Hodag fans is that Martin practiced, albeit in a limited capacity, Monday and Tuesday. Kraemer said Martin has every intention of playing Friday night. The challenge this week has been trying to get him as close to 100 percent as possible.
"Make sure that the swelling's down, make sure that his ankle is ready to go and make sure he has maximum range of motion," Kraemer said of the team's priorities for Martin. "We need to make sure he's got range of motion, he's got power, that he can move. When one of the parts of the chain on one of the legs has an issue, sometimes it leads to issues in other places. We want to make sure he's prepared. Merrill's a physical team, so he's got to be ready to take some hits and some of the physical toll that Merrill will bring, but we expect him to be ready."
The other key injury was to lineman Alex Olson, who missed last Friday's contest at Mosinee with an arm injury. Olson's 6-4, 270-plus-pound frame could come in handy tomorrow night against a Merrill front four that has three linemen listed at more than 220 pounds, but Kraemer said his status for the contest was undetermined as of Tuesday.
Despite Merrill's 1-6 record, the Bluejays have been respectable on the defensive side of the ball and come into the contest having given up only 14 points in each of their last two contests.
"You can see that, defensively, they're a physical team that's starting to gel together in their 4-2-5 defense," Kraemer said. "They did a little of amoeba stuff last week against Lakeland where they were all standing up and moving. You can't do that unless you're feeling comfortable with your personnel. You can see it's starting to come around for them defensively."
Merrill is allowing less than 190 yards per game on the ground, but has allowed 6.3 yards per carry. Teams have had some success passing against the Bluejays, passing for 115 yards per game with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. Opposing quarterback have a 123.1 rating against Merrill's defense.
Linebacker Eddie Collinsworth and safety Caleb Timm are the team's leading tacklers.
Offense has been the biggest challenge for Merrill so far this season. The Bluejays come in averaging only 9.8 points per game -and half of that total was scored in a 35-14 win at Ashland two weeks ago. Otherwise, Merrill has been shutout twice this season and scored only one touchdown on three separate occasions.
The Bluejays do most of their work on the ground in an option-based scheme keyed by junior quarterback Caleb DeJong. He's the team's leading rusher with 97 carries for 576 yards on the year. He's also scored nine of the team's 10 touchdowns so far this season. Collinsworth as a wingback (77-292-1) and fullback Nik Zastrow (52-230-0) complement DeJong in the running game.
Merrill has not gone to the air often and DeJong is competing only 27 percent of his passes on the season. He's thrown for 177 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Kraemer said Merrill's offense poses a challenge up front, mainly because four of its five starting offensive linemen check in, weighing at least 225 points. That includes 285-pound center Alex Bloch and 290-pound left tackle Vaughn Albrecht.
"I think they have a couple of real good, solid athletes and a real big offensive line," Kraemer said. "it's just a solid group of kids coming back and an offense that wants to run the football. They have the guys to do that."
Wet and wild
Conditions could pose a challenge for both teams tomorrow night, with the National Weather Service calling for rain all day tomorrow and a kickoff temperature around 47 degrees.
For Merrill, the conditions will be reminiscent of last Saturday when they played in the rain in a homecoming loss to Lakeland. Despite the defeat, Merrill did not commit a turnover in the contest.
Rhinelander has played a few times in the rain this season, but not since a Week 4 win over Wausau East. Ball security was already a point of emphasis this week in practice aft the team fumbled four times in a one-point loss at Mosinee.
"We'll do what we need to do to prepare ourselves for that," Kraemer said. "Regardless of what the weather is like, we'll have to play our brand of football - which is control the ball offensively, run the football, play solid defense and keep the ball from their best players."
If the script for tomorrow night's game sounds familiar, that's because it is. Rhinelander has twice played Merrill with a chance to win and become eligible for the WIAA playoffs. It did not work so well for the Hodags in 2006, when they lost 32-0 in a Week 9 contest to be stopped one win shy of the tournament.
It was a different story six years later when a banged up Rhinelander team hosted Merrill on homecoming in the second-to-last game of the regular season. The Hodags responded, despite losing three starters to season-ending injuries the week prior, and knocked off Merrill 14-13 in a win that earned Rhinelander its first playoff trip since 1989.
Rhinelander has not defeated Merrill since that night, but has a chance to flip the script tomorrow and return to the playoffs.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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