Not until the final play of the game – when Fridley’s desperate last second field goal attempt sailed short and to the left – was the outcome of the Wildcats’ game against Fridley decided. The Wildcats had thwarted a furious comeback attempt by the Tigers to hang on for a 35-34 victory in the 2012 Chisago Lakes home opener. The win put the Wildcats at 2-0 to start the season. Sophomore defensive back Will Gillach forced the hurried field goal attempt. On third and 12 from the Wildcat 28 yard line, 20 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, Tiger quarterback Nick Rathke completed a short pass to receiver Brandon Hodson. Seeing he wouldn’t likely get the first down, Hodson tried to race out of bounds to stop the clock. But Gillach tackled him before he reached the sideline, six yards shy of a first down, to make it fourth down and to keep the clock running. The Tigers had just 15 seconds left to set up a field goal attempt.
That’s a tall task for a football team in the NFL, much less a high school team, and the Tigers were not able to pull it off, giving the Wildcats a nail-biting victory. The Wildcats appeared to be in control deep into this game, but a couple of second half turnovers found the score tied at 28-28 late in the third quarter. The Wildcats moved the ball well into Tiger territory, but a fumble was recovered by the Tigers and, with momentum and a great passing attack on their side, the Tigers looked poised to take the game away from the Wildcats. But Wildcat defensive end Bradee Thompson, who had just missed two sacks the prior week against Mahtomedi, changed everything. As Rathke dropped back to pass, Thompson burst through the line and chased him down in the backfield. Thompson grabbed a hold of Rathke and stripped the ball.
Wildcat Josh Dutcher fell on the ball at the Tiger 17 and the Wildcat offense was back in business. After two runs by Kaleb Paehlke, who rushed for a career-best 146 yards, gave the Wildcats a first down at the six, Quade Zupko scored his first career touchdown on a burst up the middle. After Hunter Lindstrom’s fifth extra point of the game, the Wildcats led 35-28 late in the third quarter. The Wildcats went on a clock-chewing drive in the fourth quarter, but the Tiger defense stiffened and a Wildcat punt put the Tigers back on their own 13 yard line with four minutes left in the game. But a passing team can move the ball downfield quickly and the Tigers used their aerial circus to quickly move the ball into scoring position, including a 39 yard completion on third and 15 from their own 19 yard line with just over three minutes left on the clock.
After moving the ball to the Wildcats 15 yard line a couple of plays later, Rathke hit receiver Axl Harlander with a touchdown pass to pull the Tigers within one point at 35-34 with 90 seconds left in the game. The Tigers decided to go for two points and the lead. Rathke dropped back to pass, but was again harassed by Thompson. His hurried attempt sailed over a well-covered receiver in the back left corner of the end zone and the failed conversion allowed the Wildcats to hang on to their slim lead. The Tigers then lined up for the expected onside kick. They hit it perfectly. It bounced up in the air and the Tigers fell on it at the Wildcat 40. “They made a great play on it,” said Wildcat head coach Bill Weiss. “It was pretty frustrating because we thought we had the right personnel – the ‘hands’ team – out there to stop it. We’ve got to make that play.” Two runs gave the Tigers a first down on the Wildcat 26 with just under a minute to play.
Two plays later, Gillach’s big play forced the Tigers into the errant field goal attempt that ended the game. Contrasting offensive styles added to the entertainment value in this game. The Wildcats had a lot of success on the ground early in the game and stuck with what worked, gaining over 350 yards and completing just one of seven passes. Fridley, on the other hand, moved the ball through the air, completing 24 of 34 passes for 278 yards. Their ability to move the ball quickly down the field kept the outcome of the game in doubt until the very
end. Paehlke carried the ball 19 times in his 146 yard performance. Zupko averaged over ten yards per carry with 92 yards on nine carries and Josh Parks had 83 yards on 12 carries. The Wildcats got on the board first in this one. On a drive highlighted by a 37 yard run by Zupko, Paehlke finished it off with a four yard run up the middle to put the Wildcats up 7-0 midway through the first quarter. The Wildcats started their next possession near midfield. On third down from the 25 yard line, Wildcat quarterback Mitch Berg hit tight end Josh Dutcher over the middle at the ten for his only completion of the game. Dutcher did the rest, galloping into the end zone to double the Wildcat lead to 14-0. The Tigers fumbled the ball to the Wildcats on their next possession but intercepted a Wildcat pass on the next play, getting the ball back on the Wildcat 18. Rathke threw a 19 yard touchdown pass to running back Michael Murray to cut the Wildcats lead to 14-7 early in the second quarter.
The Wildcats got the ball back and plowed down the field on the legs of Paehlke and Parks. Paehlke scored his second touchdown of the game on a 17 yard run – where else? – up the middle, and the Wildcats again led by 14 points. But another lightning-quick drive by the Tigers, capped off by a 44 yard passing touchdown, cut the Wildcat lead to seven points at 21-14. The Wildcats started their next drive on their own 35. Berg called his own number four times on the drive, for 41 yards, and capped it off with a 13 yard run to put the Wildcats on top 28-14. The Tigers went on an 11 play drive late in the half, but Gillach intercepted a pass on the final play of the half and the Wildcats went into halftime up by 14. It didn’t take long for the Tigers to tighten things up after halftime. Starting from their won 33, the Tigers ran a misdirection play on second and 10. Quarterback Rathke got into the open and raced down the left sideline all the way to the end zone.
The Tigers botched the hold on the extra point attempt but had still pulled within eight points less than 30 seconds into the half. After a Wildcat punt, the Tigers got the ball back on their own 24 yard line midway through the third quarter. They went on an 11 play drive capped off by a 12 yard touchdown pass from Rathke to Murray. The pass to Hodson for two points was good and the game was all knotted up at 28-28, setting the stage for late game excitement and heroics. “It wasn’t the prettiest game ever played,” said Weiss, “but we got the result we wanted. Ball security was not what we needed it to be in the second half. We ended up stopping ourselves quite a few times when we turned the ball over and they took advantage of the opportunities with the kind of high percentage passing their offense is built on. We could have lost the game because of that. Give Fridley credit. They are a hard-nosed team that didn’t quit. We had our chances to put game away and failed to take advantage of them. The win which was great but there are a lot of things we can learn to do better. I was proud of how our team responded after the 14 point lead dissipated. Our guys and our coaches didn’t panic. We kept our composure and convinced ourselves we would be okay. And, ultimately, we were. We proved again this week that we have a pretty mature group of kids.
“It was a big night for Kaleb Paehlke. The fullback dive was there a lot. Everything he does is right up the middle by design. Those are hard yards and all those yards he got were well earned. We pretty much ran the ball exclusively after the first quarter because that was what was working for us. It’s nice to go on long method time consuming drives when you have a lead. And Will Gillach and Bradee Thomson each came up with some huge defensive plays that helped to assure a win.” Tomorrow night, the Wildcats (2-0) head to New Hope to take on the high-flying Robbinsdale Cooper Hawks (1-1) at 7 p.m. The Hawks have scored 102 points in their first two games. The Wildcats, no slouches on offense themselves after scoring 64 points in their first two games, will have their work cut out for them.
“They look pretty fast and athletic,” said Weiss. “I’ve seen both their games on film and they’ve got some guys who can do some things with the ball. We’ll have our hands full, but I think we learned some good things last week against Fridley. We saw some similarities between Fridley and Cooper. Our guys are up for the challenge and we’ll see what happens.”