Players react after Merrill’s Eddie Collinsworth (33) scores a touchdown in overtime of a Great Northern Conference football game against Rhinelander at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Oct. 11. Rhinelander lost to Merrill, 27-21, and is still on the outside looking in when it comes to the WIAA playoffs. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Merrill’s Caleb DeJong runs around end for a touchdown during the second quarter of a Great Northern Conference football game against Rhinelander at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Oct. 11. DeJong rushed for 143 yards and three touchdowns in the contest for the Bluejays.
10/15/2019 7:30:00 AM Destiny delayed Merrill stuns RHS in OT 27-21, keeps Hodags searching for playoff berth
For the second week in a row the Rhinelander High School football team let a chance to get into the WIAA playoffs slip through its grasp.
Eddie Collinsworth scored from a yard out in overtime and Merrill stunned Rhinelander 27-21 Friday night at Mike Webster Stadium, keeping the Hodags one win away from playoff eligibility. Rhinelander will have one last chance to make the playoffs this Friday at Ashland.
The Hodags surrendered 21 unanswered points - all on touchdown runs by Merrill quarterback Caleb DeJong - to fall behind 21-13 late in the fourth quarter. Then they made a wild comeback with a touchdown and two-point conversion from Drake Martin to tie the game with 14 seconds remaining in regulation. But the Hodags went nowhere in their first possession in OT and Merrill (2-6, 2-3 Great Northern) used its methodical ground game to pull off the upset.
"We had them on their heels and we just didn't finish," RHS football coach Aaron Kraemer said afterward. "That's two weeks in a row. We, as coaches, have to get to the drawing board and figure out where we're going wrong in the second half, where they are adjusting and we're not. That starts with me."
Things could not have started much better for the Hodags. DeJong fumbled on Merrill's first offensive snap. Rhinelander (5-3, 2-3) recovered at the Merrill 25 and scored five plays later as Martin punched it in on fourth and goal from the seven.
Kicking into a stiff southwesterly wind, Martin popped up the ensuing kickoff. The result was an unintentional onside kick that Rhinelander recovered in Merrill territory. Two plays later Quinn Lamers found Peyton Erikson on a 46-yard screen pass to put the Hodags ahead 13-0.
After the teams exchanged punts, Merrill found its footing. The Bluejays went on a plodding 12-play drive in which it converted on fourth-down twice and took 6 minutes, 41 seconds off the clock before DeJong found the end zone from three yards out to make it 13-7.
Merrill had a similar plodding drive that took 7:13 off the clock in the third quarter that ended with a DeJong 1-yard run to put the Bluejays up 14-13. DeJong broke a 57-yarder in the fourth quarter to help set up a score with 2:32 remaining that gave Merrill a 21-13 advantage.
The loss marked the second week in a row that the Hodags could not hold on to a 13-point lead. Kraemer hinted at the pressure of trying to become playoff eligible for only the third time in school history.
"I think we're maybe putting a little too much pressure on ourselves to get in and worried about winning the game to make it into the playoffs. Let's just win and let everything else fall into place," he said.
That Rhinelander would even get to overtime seemed highly unlikely with the Hodags facing fourth and 10 at their own 26 with less than two minutes remaining.
Lamers rolled left and found Erikson with a diving catch on the turf at the 42 yard line to pick up the conversion. Two plays later, Lamers chucked a deep pass downfield intended for Jackson Labs that was deflected and caught by Travis Towne at the 11.
Martin ran it in from two yards three plays later and tied the game on the subsequent two point conversion.
The momentum did not carry over to overtime, however. Martin was stopped for a three-yard loss on Rhinelander's first play. Three incompletions later, the Hodags turned the ball over on downs.
"We finish in overtime, that's a story you're talking about in your college dorm room," Kraemer said. "You come back and score a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion ... It was a hell of an effort."
Rhinelander was driving on its initial possession but the series stalled after Lamers was incorrectly ruled to have thrown a backward pass on first and 10 at the Merrill 40. Replay shows Lamers throwing a bubble screen at the 45-yard-line that went through Labs' hands at the 43 and then rolled backward and out of bounds. Two plays later, Lamers was sacked on third and 13 and the Hodags were forced to punt.
"I think we left a touchdown on the board early in the game, our first drive, and then I think we never really clicked after that," Kraemer said.
After Merrill scored to make it 13-7, Rhinelander drove into the red zone and faced a fourth-and-1 play from the 16. Martin checked out of the game for that play and Erikson was stopped on an outside pitch behind the line of scrimmage.
"That's a heart play and an effort play," Kraemer said. "That's not just on Peyton. That's on everyone. It's fourth and 1, we've got to get the first down. You keep the drive going and score a touchdown there and it puts a different type of pressure on."
Rhinelander missed two defensive opportunities moments before Merrill's go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. DeJong fumbled on second-and-8 from the 18, but was able to recover his own gaffe. The next play, DeJong broke through three tackle attempts on his way to converting on third-and-11. He scored from a yard out three plays later.
Rhinelander drove deep into Merrill territory again in the fourth quarter, but had a Martin run inside the 5 negated by a personal foul penalty for a blindside block. The drive eventually stalled out as Lamers threw an incomplete pass on fourth down.
Merrill went back to its bread and butter play in the overtime session with DeJong calling his own number on option keepers on the first five plays of the drive before letting Collinsworth finish it off from the one.
DeJong, who came into the night as the third-leading rusher in the GNC, rushed for 143 yards and three scores in the contest.
"DeJong is a really good player. For the right reason he was third in the conference (in rushing) and I'm sure he creeped up tonight. He's a very good player and that's a very tough team," Kraemer said. "Our guys were tackling the running back, which is what they're told to do, and we just weren't rallying to the football quick enough. Then when we did have him in the backfield, he just shook out, one side or the other. You watch him on film against Ashland and he did the exact same thing. We talked about it in the film. It was something we were prepared to do and we just didn't get it done."
Eyes were on Martin's health entering the game as he was limited in the second half of a Week 7 loss at Mosinee due to an ankle injury. Martin rushed for 135 yards and two scores on 24 carries, but Kraemer said the Hodags' star running back was still operating at less than 100 percent.
"Early in the game he tweaked his ankle again, but he ran hard and I'm proud of his effort," the coach said.
With the performance, Martin eclipsed 1,100 yards in a season for the third time in his career. He needs 64 yards this coming Friday at Ashland to beat his career-high total of 1,162 yards set last season.
Glory's last shot
The math is real simple for the Hodags - beat winless Ashland this Friday or miss the playoffs for the seventh straight year.
A win would get Rhinelander to 3-3 in conference play, and playoff eligible. That does not guarantee a playoff berth but, with all indications appearing that fewer than the playoff cap of 224 teams state-wide will have .500 or better records in conference play, a win virtually assures the Hodags a spot in the postseason.
Still, Kraemer channeled his inner Jim Mora Sr. when looking ahead to the regular season finale.
"I'm just going to tell the guys forget about the darn playoffs and let's just win," he said. "Let's just take it the next step, finish 6-3. We can't look back at the couple that we think we could have had, or should have had. We just got to finish against Ashland this week."
Ashland was blown out by Lakeland 32-6 Friday night in Minocqua - a win that made Lakeland playoff eligible. A year after winning the GNC title, the Oredockers are 0-8 overall. Friday's game will be played at Weikal Field.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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