Looking more like a complete team every week, the St. Croix Central football team thoroughly outplayed the rival from Baldwin-Woodville on Friday.
The Panthers gained more than 450 yards of offense and shackled the Blackhawk attack as Central rolled to a 40-7 win at St. Croix Central High School.
With the win, Central joins Osceola at the top of the Middle Border Conference standings. Central, the 2016 WIAA Division 4 state champion and Osceola, the 2015 Division 4 state champion, are both 3-0 in the MBC and 5-0 overall. Both teams need one more win to lock up a place in the 2017 WIAA tournament field.
Central will play its third straight home game this Friday when the Panthers host Amery. The following Friday, the Panthers will play at Osceola.
The term "impose their will" is big in football and that's what Central was able to do to the rival Blackhawks on Friday. The Central linemen took control of the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. B-W had 139 yards of offense in the game and most of it came when Blackhawk quarterback Alex Bishop broke free for a 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Otherwise, the Blackhawks rarely moved the ball against the Central defense.
Central's offense chewed up yardage in chunks. On the ground, the Panthers averaged seven yards per carry, gaining 414 yards on 59 attempts. Add in 53 yards on two pass completions and this was the first time the Panthers have gone over 450 yards of offense in a game this season.
The Panthers have been able to build this offensive success despite a revolving door at running back created by injuries. Ryan Larson and Austin Kopacz returned for this game from injuries, but senior back Alec Fischer had to sit out due to a leg injury.
Larson, halfback Keagen Berg and quarterback Collin Nelson formed a three-pronged ground attack that Baldwin-Woodville could not stop. Larson only carried the ball 10 yards, but was able to gain 79 yards as the Central line drove B-W defenders well off the line. Berg and Nelson both rushed for more than 130 yards. Berg finished with 133 yards and three touchdowns. He is rapidly emerging as a breakaway threat, whether running up the middle or to the outside. Berg's three touchdowns measured 29, 16 and 29 yards. The first two were on toss plays to the outside. The third came on a blast to the middle, where he quickly hit the hole, then darted to the left into the open field.
Central coach Tony DiSalvo said the line is beginning to fulfill its potential.
"They've really stepped it up," he said. "It's nice to have good backs and to have a good line blocking in front of them."
The best reflection of the offense's success on Friday was the first down total. The Panthers finished the night with 20 first downs, a feat that is rarely accomplished in high school football.
Larson led the Panther defense with 13 tackles. Mike Steinmetz came up with an important interception in the first half that set up the Panthers' second touchdown.
The regular season is over half done. DiSalvo wanted to make sure the Panthers understand that their season could be done in a month.
"The seniors have four games left in their careers. Nothing's guaranteed," he said.