ST. PAUL — The pregame spotlight on Cretin-Derham Hall and coveted recruit Jashon Cornell refocused on the Stillwater sideline following Friday’s nationally televised football game at the University of St. Thomas.
The less-heralded Ponies (3-0 SEC, 3-0) delivered a steady performance to overtake the Raiders 21-7 and remain in a three-way tie for first place with East Ridge and Mounds View in the Suburban East Conference.
“It’s an amazing feeling to come off a hard week of practice, come to Cretin’s homecoming and all the hype behind them because they have the No. 1 recruit, and it’s just a great feeling to prove that we’re the better team,” Stillwater senior defensive end Mitchell Schertz said. “This is huge for us. We put ourselves in a great position, first place in the conference, it’s a big win.”
It was also the most anticipated regular season game Stillwater has played in a long time, thanks to the influence of an ESPN2 broadcast and the hoopla that comes with the rare — and unprecedented in Minnesota — opportunity.
“We identified that this was a really cool thing for our program and we were excited for them to have a national spotlight like this, but the best part is that it was against Cretin so it didn’t matter if the game was on TV or not,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said. “Our guys were going to be really up for this game because they know they have to play their best football game or it’s not going to be a very enjoyable game, whether it’s on TV or not. We said let’s do what we had to do to get things taken care of. We had a very good week of practice and it wasn’t until the very end of the game anybody said this is on TV.”
It was a not-quite-ready-for-primetime opening series for the defense as Cretin-Derham Hall marched 80 yards for a touchdown on its first drive, but the Ponies rebounded to hold the Raiders scoreless throughout the rest of the game. The performance is more impressive when you consider the Raiders (1-2, 1-2) rolled up 56 points on Hastings a week earlier.
“At first it was kind of hectic,” Schertz said. “You’ve got the big lights, the cameras and everything, but after a while you just kind of forget about it and you start playing football.”
The Ponies were unfazed by the early deficit.
“We knew that first of all we needed to try and control the ball and over the course of the game we did,” LaBore said. “Defensively we were a bit jumbled early on as far as getting lined up correctly and executing our defense.
“I think No. 1, we settled down. No. 2, we kind of got into the game and got away from some of the early excitement that might have existed and, finally, we started to get a bit of a read on what was taking place and we were reacting rather than thinking.”
Stillwater held an advantage in several categories on Friday, including field position, turnovers and penalties.
The Raiders started just one drive beyond their own 25-yard line and that was their last possession when the outcome largely decided. Cretin-Derham Hall was also minus-2 in the turnover department and was flagged seven times for 49 yards in penalties, compared to Stillwater’s two penalties for 10 yards.
DJ Skie returned a punt 47 yards down to the Cretin-Derham Hall 11 to set up Stillwater’s first touchdown. Zach Knox carried three times from there — the last from 4 yards out — to tie the score at 7-all after the first of three extra-point kicks by Evan Johnson with five minutes remaining in the first half.
The Ponies took advantage another short field when Trevor Tillett scored on a quarterback sneak from 1 yard out to provide a 14-7 lead with 47 seconds remaining in the first half. Jordan Phelps hauled in a 32-yard pass from Tillett down to the 1 to set up the go-ahead score.
The Raiders held a 316-230 advantage in total yards, but much of that came on their opening series of the game and a 64-yard drive in the final seconds of the first half that led to a missed 28-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Tony Adamle, who is the son of former Ponies offensive coordinator Vic Adamle, capped that opening drive for the Raiders with a 47-yard scoring pass from Ricardo Johnson for their only touchdown.
“We did a nice job overall against their run,” LaBore said. “They had possessions where they moved the ball in big chunks and they had possessions where they went three, four or five plays and out. We set up our points with special teams and field position.”
Stillwater again capitalized on strong starting field position to set up its final score early in the fourth quarter. Tillett found Matt Anderson for a 16-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 21-7 with less than 11 minutes remaining.
“Our game plan was to prevent big plays and outside of one big play, we did that,” LaBore said. “We had a couple of big plays of our own to overcome that. We said we wanted to stop the run and run the ball. When you execute your game plan against a very, very good opponent, you’ve got to feel very good about it.”
The Ponies held running back Blake Banham to just 54 yards on 16 attempts — well below his 7.8 yards per carry average through the first two games.
Johnson picked up the slack by completing 17 of 29 passes for 245 yards, but the Ponies were stingy when it came to the scoreboard.
“Yeah, bend but don’t break,” Schertz said. “We had a couple of deep balls and a couple of big runs, but we’re tough by the goal line. Whenever they broke a big play we’d just regroup and say let’s stop the next one.”
Linebacker Andrew Lammers led the Ponies with nine solo tackles and one assisted tackle while Ian Weisbrod added four solo tackles and secured the game-clinching interception in the final seconds.
“We thought offensively they were going to run the ball more than they did,” LaBore said. “We thought they’d give the ball to Banham more than they did, but we did a nice job overall against their run. We were having trouble chasing behind their faster receivers.”
With the defense doing its part, Zach Knox powered Stillwater’s offense with 134 rushing yards on 31 carries. The heavy workload is nothing new for Knox, but the extra television timeouts — three per quarter — didn’t hurt. Tillett, meanwhile, completed 8 of 13 passes for 97 yards.
The Ponies have allowed just 13 points combined in three games this season and both touchdowns were given up in the first quarter the game.
“Our defense started out slow, but we regrouped after that first score and stuffed them the rest of the game,” Schertz said.
“Our guys played Stillwater football,” LaBore added. “They played hard-nosed, heads-up, shoulder-pad football and that’s where I think the game was won.”
Stillwater 0 14 0 7 — 21
Cretin-Derham Hall 7 0 0 0 — 7
C-DH — Tony Adamle 47 pass from Ricardo Johnson (Sam Clark kick) 8:44.
St — Zach Knox 4 run (Evan Johnson kick) 5:00.
St — Trevor Tillett 1 run (Johnson kick) :47.
St — Matt Anderson 16 pass from Tillett (Johnson kick) 10:43.
First downs 13 15
Rushes-yards 38-133 25-71
Passing yards 97 245
Total yards 230 316
Comp-Att-Int. 8-14-0 17-29-1
Fumbles/lost 1/0 3/1
Penalties/yards 2/10 7/49
Punts/avg. 3/36.0 4/26.5
Rushing — St: Zach Knox 31-134, Alec Hill 3-6, team 2-0 and Trevor Tillett 2-(-7); C-DH: Blake Banham 16-54, Brian Lankford-Johnson 3-15, Ricardo Johnson 6-2.
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — St: Trevor Tillett 8-13-97-1-0 and DJ Skie 0-1-0-0-0; C-DH: Ricardo Johnson 17-29-245-1-1.
Receiving — St: Matt Anderson 3-41, Jordan Phelps 1-32, DJ Skie 2-11, Charlie Haumerson 1-10 and Alec Hill 1-3; C-DH: Tony Adamle 3-71, Matt Miller 4-62, Ben Michaels 4-45, Aitor Flood 3-36, Joe Wagner 1-17, Jamal Green 1-15 and Blake Banham 1-(-1).
Kickoff returns — St: Brooks Carroll 2-39; C-DH: Tim Gordon 1-20, Brian Lankford-Johnson 1-14 and Brison White 1-2.
Punt returns — St: DJ Skie 1-47 and Brooks Carroll 1-4; C-DH: Blake Banham 1-9.
Interceptions — St: Ian Weisbrod 1-0; C-DH: none.
Fumble recoveries — St: David Peterson 1-0; C-DH: none.
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com