Getting a shot at redemption
Minnesota West football coach Jeff Linder has played upon a single message this season: His team must stay the course.
Don't worry about the polls, don't worry about the stats, just get done what's ahead of you.
On Saturday, Minnesota West continued to heed those words of advice.
Elrazor Sharp scored a pair of touchdowns and the Bluejays defense clamped down on the Mesabi Range offense in the final three quarters to earn a 33-10 victory in the MCCC semifinals, setting up a rematch with Rochester in Saturday's championship game at 1 p.m. in St. Cloud. Rochester advanced with a 17-0 victory over Vermillion. The game is a rematch of last year's final, won by Rochester.
Ranked fourth in the latest NJCAA poll entering the game, Minnesota West (10-0) has been a ground attack squad all season, but it didn't look like it in the first quarter. The Bluejays surprisingly got away from the ground game in the first, running nine times and throwing 17 others. Quarterback Jay Scheidt struggled in the first half, going 4-for-20 for 91 yards and two interceptions.
Meanwhile, Mesabi Range (5-5) also attempted to go to the air against the Minnesota West defense, with costly results early on.
On Mesabi's second possession of the game, quarterback Anthony Johnson's pass attempt was tipped in the air by Steven Washington. When the freshman gathered the ball out of the air, he skirted down the sideline for a 45-yard touchdown, giving the Bluejays a 7-3 lead.
It was a play, according to Washington, that he knew was coming.
"I watched a whole lot of film. I knew I was going to get tripped, I knew the pass was coming right into my hands," Washington said. "I just jumped up ... picked the ball off and went for the touchdown."
However, any joy about the touchdown was quickly erased on the next play from scrimmage. Starting at their own 41-yard line, the Norseman struck back as Johnson hit a streaking Ray Moore down the middle of the field for a 59-yard touchdown pass which put Mesabi Range up 10-7, and took all the energy away from the Bluejays.
"We've had success doing that this year," Mesabi Range coach Dan Lind said of the passing game. "We're a wide-open offense. We capitalized on that and that got us back in the game."
It was the final time the Norseman had that success, though, as Linder made his adjustment, putting Regis Richardson on Moore to help take away the vertical game. Judging by the fact Moore did not catch another ball the rest of the day, the plan worked.
"We made the adjustment to put our best cover guy on (Moore)," Linder said. "We put our best cover guy, in Regis (Richardson) on him, and told him to give him a cushion."
While the Mesabi Range offense struggled, the Bluejays picked up their production, scoring a second-quarter touchdown on a 17-yard run by Scheidt, who ran to the left side and beat the defense to the corner of the end zone.
Then, in the second half, Minnesota West took full command, capitalizing two interceptions and one blocked punt into touchdowns.
Scheidt hooked up with Walki Ambroise for an 11-yard touchdown after the blocked punt, then watched as Sharp pounded through the Mesabi Range defensive line for both of his scores, putting the game out of reach.
"We needed to go back to what got us where we (were)," Linder said. "We were down there before and didn't punch it in. We just put it in the bard and started scoring."
After the game, Sharp cited Washington's interception return as the spark which got him going.
"He's one of my best friends in the whole wide world on this football team," Sharp said. "Seeing him do that just inspired me to get out there and try to play harder to win this game for the whole team."
Both Scheidt and Johnson finished the game tossing three interceptions, but did get 75 yards rushing from Casley Green to help pick up the offense. Scheidt, however, did have a much more efficient passing performance in the second half, going 2-for-5 for 47 yards.
Chris Clay led the passing attack for the Bluejays, catching four balls for 118 yards.
Mesabi Range 10 0 0 0 -- 10
Minnesota West 7 7 19 0 -- 33