A little snow isn't going to stop the St. Croix Central football team.
Neither snow, nor the Northwestern Tigers, could stop Central on Friday night. The Panthers used a versatile and varied ground attack to fight off the wind-swept snow and Northwestern, winning 28-0.
The Panthers are the final survivor from the Middle Border Conference, after Bloomer upset Osceola on Friday, 18-12. Bloomer will be St. Croix Central's opponent Friday, Nov. 3, and because Central is the higher seed among the two teams, the Panthers will host the game at 7 p.m.
This is the fourth straight year where Central has advanced to Level 3 of the state playoffs. Last year was the first year the Panthers got beyond Level 3, when they went all the way to the state championship. Bloomer is another team with an extensive playoff background, so both teams will be well-scouted before Friday's game.
"We'll continue to do what we do," Central coach Tony DiSalvo said. "Bloomer runs so many formations and only a handful of plays. They try to confuse you."
There was no confusing Central's plans in Friday's snow bowl against Northwestern. The Panthers didn't score on the opening drive of the game. But they did hold the ball for more than nine minutes before being stopped at the Northwestern 10-yard line. Central's defense then took its turn, stuffing three Northwestern running plays.
The first break of the game came when Northwestern's snap on that punt was over the punter's head. He booted the ball out of the end zone to take the safety, giving Central a 2-0 lead. After the free kick, the Panthers got the ball at their own 40-yard line. This time the drive wouldn't be stopped.
The Panthers used ball control as an artform. Northwestern was only able to run three offensive plays in the first quarter. Central's defense did its part in this game of keep away. Northwestern was limited to 69 yards of offense in the game. Northwestern's main offense threat was halfback Reagan Ruffi, who had rushed for more than 200 yards in four of the Tigers' previous five games. Central limited Ruffi to 55 yards, and the rest of the Tiger offense was only able to produce 14 yards.
After getting the ball following the safety, the Panthers chewed up the 60 yards on 13 plays, with quarterback Collin Nelson scoring on a 6-yard run off right tackle.
Northwestern opened the second half with its biggest play of the night, a kickoff return to the Panther 45-yard line. The Panther defense stopped the threat without giving up a first down. Central's offense then took over and marched for another score. It was Nelson finishing the drive again, this time from 2-yards out.
Central's defense forced a punt on the next Northwestern possession. The Panthers then used 15 plays to march down the field, with halfback Alec Fischer capping the drive on a 1-yard plunge that made the lead 21-0.
Northwestern then tried to pass. A couple pass interference calls moved the ball into Central territory. But this was not a night for passing success. Northwestern tried a swing pass to a back out of the backfield. Fischer recognized the play and cut in front of the back. He reached up to grab the pass with his left hand. He raced down the Central sideline for a 71-yard interception return for the final score of the night.
The Panther offense was incredibly balanced. Nelson, fullback Ryan Larson, and halfbacks Fischer and Keagen Berg equally divided the ground attack. They all gained between 51 and 76 yards, but it resulted in the Panthers finishing with 269 yards on the ground. In Friday's conditions, that was quite a successful production.
Northwestern was keying on Larson, but he ending up being a lead blocker on many of the runs between the tackles.
"They weren't going to let Ryan beat them single-handedly," DiSalvo said. "All our backs ran really hard."
A number of Panthers stood out on defense. Fischer showed excellent range on defense and this may have been the best played by lineman Hunter Schmidt.
"Hunter played very well. I was very impressed by him," DiSalvo said, adding that the linemen on offense and defense did an exceptional job of controlling the line of scrimmage.