GREEN BAY - The blueprint was there but could it be executed?
The only possible way to beat West De Pere this football season was to beat it at its own game. That meant playing the Phantoms to a standstill in the trenches and keep it low scoring.
Before last Friday's Level 4 game between Waupaca and West De Pere, Waupaca coach John Koronkiewicz mentioned concern with how his offensive and defensive lines would deal with West De Pere's lines, which basically dominate every team they play.
He knew if the Comets were to end West De Pere's 39-game winning streak his team would have to kick back when West De Pere attacked. Only once had that happened this season, when Seymour played the Phantoms and fell, 12-7, mainly because West De Pere scored on a fake punt.
This is when West De Pere's vulnerability was confirmed and this game was a sign. Starting with the Seymour game, West De Pere trailed in the first quarter in four of six games to finish the season after rolling through its first six opponents.
The schedule did get tougher, but the fact the Phantoms were getting challenged at least early was something new.
Gone were the fast first-quarter starts as the Phantoms had to work to build a first-half lead rather than cruise to one. And one of the reasons for the Phantoms' struggles was they met better teams which could at least contain the Phantoms' usually dominant running game for a while.
Prior to Friday's game, West De Pere ran the ball on 71 percent of its offensive plays and did it effectively, which gave the Phantoms no reason to pass a lot.
Why change the run-heavy offense when you're 11-0?
Two reasons why the Phantoms ran a lot were because it could and the passing game was ordinary. Quarterback Matt DeBaker managed games for the Phantoms and did it real well, but he wasn't dynamic.
This put the pressure on the running offense, which primarily ran between the tackles, to keep producing at a high rate. The first time West De Pere got a taste of its own medicine was against Seymour, but the Phantoms got away with being pushed around because it led late.
The key to beating West De Pere was to be in the game early and the get ahead in the fourth quarter, which put pressure on an offense which during this season never had to rally from behind late in a game to win. That finally happened when Beau Ash booted a 22-yard field goal to give Waupaca a 16-14 lead with 69 seconds left in the game.
To be fair, 69 seconds isn't a lot of time for any offense – high school, college or the NFL – but knowing West De Pere's style of play, this wasn't a good spot to be in.
The Phantoms started at their own 20 and to get into reasonable field-goal range against about a 10-mile-per-hour wind, West De Pere was going to have to at least reach Waupaca's 15-yard line, which would set up about a 32-yard field goal attempt.
That meant marching 55 yards in 68 seconds (need one second left to kick a field goal) with no timeouts. That would be a challenge for a pass-heavy team like Two Rivers to accomplish, let alone West De Pere's ground-and-pound style.
For most of the drive, the Phantoms ran 5- to 7-yard outs to stop the clock, but the problem with that approach was they were gaining little yardage and time was running out.
West De Pere was at Waupaca's 37 with 15 seconds left and needed to connect on a big play. DeBaker attempted a deeper pass but that fell incomplete with nine seconds to play. Knowing a big play was needed to at least have a chance at a field goal, what did West De Pere do?
It threw a short down-and-out that was intercepted and ended the game and the streak.
West De Pere was never in this situation the past two seasons because Jay Tollefson was remarkable at the quarterback position and never had the Phantoms trailing late in a game. He could run, he could pass and when a play broke down he could scramble and turn disaster into 10 yards, 20 yards or even a touchdown.
The 2011 state player of the year had athleticism that allowed coach Bill Turnquist to open his playbook more. This year, the playbook could've been on an index card.
West De Pere had a speedy running back in Zach Rothering (1,352 yards, 22 TDs) this season, but little beside him. Furthermore, the offense game in and game out never veered from what it was – vanilla. Run between the tackles and beat up the opposing defensive line.
Then when the defense has 10 or 11 in the box, go deep to receiver Connor Konshak.
This worked a lot and Turnquist never lost faith in his offense, so much so prior to the game's last drive he was faced with five fourth-down situations in which he opted to gamble and go for a first down rather than punt.
Once it worked, but that was a fake punt when Chandler Diekvoss hit Kegan Wirtz for a 32-yard pass, the longest pass play of the game. It led to no points.
The other four times West De Pere needed 17, 5, 9 and 3 yards – all in Waupaca territory – and failed each time to gain a first down. While West De Pere's offense was highly productive most of the
season, Friday night it wasn't.
West De Pere entered the game averaging 7.8 yards per carry and Friday averaged 4.5 yards per attempt. That forced West De Pere out of its comfort zone on offense as it ran the ball 35 times and threw it an unusual 29 times, plus the fake punt.
Surprisingly, with a struggling offense, Turnquist didn't try to pin Waupaca deep in its own territory and play the field-position game with a defense that before Friday allowed just one team two offensive touchdowns in a game this season and 6.3 points per game.
Turnquist has always been aggressive in his decision making on offense because most times his team gained the necessary yardage, but Friday wasn't one of those times.
In fact, Friday was the first time in 40 games in which West De Pere left the field on the losing end. West De Pere met its match in Waupaca, which received great performances from both of its lines.
The only way to beat West De Pere this season was to push back when pushed but you had to have that push. Waupaca had that. The Comets pushed back, put West De Pere in an uncomfortable position and the Phantoms didn't have an answer.
Still, West De Pere didn't change course and kept approaching the game and the opponent like it usually did and expected to win. For once that didn't happen.
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay
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