WORTHINGTON -- The Minnesota West football team hardly had time to digest its 41-7 victory over Vermilion on a hot Saturday night before head coach Jeff Linder promised them a hard week of practice.
The Bluejays expect a lot of themselves this season, and as if to reinforce that fact, Linder berated them in the middle of Trojan Field moments after the one-sided contest ended.
"A lot of work to do," was one statement that was overheard.
Despite a performance that clearly demonstrated an easy superiority on both sides of the football and saw more than one highlight reel play from sophomore running back-return man Reuben Linton II, Linder was in no mood to celebrate. The Jays lost their edge in the second half, he said, and that's unacceptable for a team planning for an autumn stocked with successes.
"We came out flat," Linder said to a reporter afterward. "Offensively, we just didn't get it back up as we did in the first half. I know heat can be a factor, but we had a lot more guys than they did. We didn't finish as we should offensively."
One player who clearly knew how to finish was Linton II. The fast and elusive Linton had his first highlight play with 1:29 remaining in the first quarter and West already leading 14-0. Taking in a Vermilion punt, the 5-10, 190-pounder knifed, darted and sprinted through Ironmen defenders 52 yards to the endzone, and when kicker Tyler Smith booted his third straight extra point, the Jays led 21-0.
Linton II tallied the only score of the second quarter with 9:35 remaining, taking a handoff and scooting through the middle, then veering right, from 14 yards out.
Minnesota West went into halftime with a 28-0 lead, and nobody in attendance should have expected the Ironmen to mount a comeback.
Defensively, the Bluejays took control early in the first quarter. Vermilion had the first possession of the game, in fact, and immediately attempted two passes that weren't caught. Then on third down, West's Torrey Cooper intercepted.
When the Ironmen tried to run the football, that went nowhere as well.
Even so, the only score in the third quarter was turned in by the visitors -- that coming on an 11-yard Keeondae Benjamin pass to the right corner of the endzone to Devonta Brooks.
Early in the fourth quarter, Linder was already seething, imploring his offensive line to step up their play.
It was Linton II -- who else -- who picked up the team.
Again, it was on a punt return. With about nine minutes remaining in the game, the Ironmen got off a hard and low kick that skidded wildly on the Trojan Field turf. Linton moved along with it toward the right sideline and risked a turnover at about West's 45-yard line by stretching out his hand to stop the ball's momentum. It worked. The spinning football dropped straight to the grass. Linton bobbled it slightly just in front of a grasping Vermilion would-be tackler, and picked it up. He veered left, breaking three tackles within the first 20 yards.
Outracing the majority of Vermilion defenders, he found resistance in the left corner near the 10-yard line. There, he sidestepped one tackler and inexplicably broke free of another, and he staggered into the end zone standing up.
Judging by the fan reaction, the 55-yard return was the most thrilling play of the game.
"By the time I got to the corner, I thought, 'I got this far, I gotta finish it out," the San Antonio, Texas, product said later.
Minnesota West closed out the day's scoring only about a minute afterward when freshman defensive back Donovan Jackson returned an interception 49 yards to paydirt.
West's other first-half scores were turned in by sophomore quarterback Logan Massop on a straight-ahead 2-yard run and second-year running back Zach Norman on a long 80-yard stomp.
Norman, a 5-11, 210-pounder from Westside High School in Omaha, Neb., was outstanding in the Saturday heat, leading all ball carriers with 180 yards on 19 carries. Linton II carried 10 times for 82 yards and Massop completed six of 13 passes for 79 yards.
As a team, West rushed 37 times for 271 net yards. Vermilion, which surrendered five sacks, rushed for just 22 net yards on 22 attempts. The Ironmen completed 21 of 39 passes for 189 yards. West netted 79 yards through the air.
Testifying to the Bluejays' firm defensive play, Vermilion's leading ball carrier was freshman Matthew Moyte, who managed only 17 yards on eight carries.
In other weekend scores around the state, Ridgewater beat Itasca 47-8, Minnesota State Fergus Falls beat Mesabi Range 34-12, Central Lakes beat Fond du Lac 34-6 and Rochester topped Northland 39-34.
Dylan Hart, a 6-1, 225-pound linebacker from Mitchell, S.D., led the Minnesota West defense Saturday with four unassisted tackles and 10 total. Two other key West defenders, linebackers Matt Shively and Cha'Ron Thompson, missed much of the game. Shively walked off after halftime suffering from heat-related issues and didn't return. Thompson, according to Linder, "tweaked something" in the third quarter and didn't come back.
The Bluejays, by that time, already had the game well in hand. But Linder isn't a coach who's about to let his charges rest on their laurels.
"That's why I'm hard on 'em. We've got so much talent. But talent doesn't win when it doesn't finish."
While Linder praised Linton II and Norman for their fine play, and said his offensive line did "an outstanding job" in the first half, he vowed to make some changes in practice on a team liberally seeded with freshmen.
"We needed to play to figure out where we're at, with all the young players we've got," Linder said.
Thanks to players like Linton II, however, it's clear that at least some of them are already getting the message that to be great, you've always got to play with high octane.
"When we went in at halftime, they told us not to let up. And that's what we did sometimes last year," Linton said after the game. "But we're a better team than that now."
The electrifying back was asked if he was satisfied with his own performance.
He smiled broadly when he said, "No. Never satisfied."
Vermillion 0 0 7 0 -- 7
Minn.West 21 7 0 13 -- 41