Middleton rallies past Oconomowoc

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Middleton junior quarterback Davis Roquet and senior center Kayden Lyles helped the Cardinals edge Oconomowoc, 20-13, in the first round of the playoffs Friday./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

OCONOMOWOC — One play. One final play.

That’s what it came down to for Middleton’s defense Friday night.

The Cardinals had kept Oconomowoc’s high-powered offense — one that was averaging 43.3 points per game — in check throughout their WIAA Division 1 Level 1 playoff match-up. Now, with the Cardinals clinging to a 20-13 lead in the closing minutes, Middleton defensive coordinator Tom Cabalka implored his sensational unit to make one last play.

Raccoons all-state quarterback Ben Nienhuis took the 4th-and-10 snap, and everyone knew the ball was going to all-state wideout Zach Clayton, who already had 13 catches on the night. Middleton bracketed Clayton with two of its top defenders — C.J. Fermanich and Joe Ludwig — but Nienhuis fired that way anyhow.

Nienhuis’ pass was on target, but the ball was tipped away.

Middleton 20, Oconomowoc 13.

Next stop? The second round of the postseason.

“Their whole offense is really good,” Ludwig said. “It took an entire team effort to shut that unit down. And I think up front we did an outstanding job putting pressure on them, shutting down the run game for the most part. In the backfield, we did a great job covering them. It feels good.”

It should.

Middleton improved to 8-2 and will host eighth-seeded Madison La Follette in Level 2 of the postseason on Oct. 28. Oconomowoc finished the year 8-2.

Of the four No. 4 vs. 5 matchups in Division 1, Middleton and Oconomowoc had the best-combined records entering the game (15-3, .833).

“It’s a shame one of these teams had to lose,” Middleton coach Tim Simon said. “Both of these teams should still be playing.”

Middleton’s defense is the No. 1 reason it’s still alive.

The Raccoons had scored 42 points, or more, in six of its first nine games this year. Oconomowoc was also averaging 450.2 total yards per game.

But Middleton held the Raccoons to just 302 total yards and a season-low in points. Oconomowoc entered Middleton territory on six of its seven possessions, but the Cardinals’ bend-but-don’t-break defense allowed just two touchdowns.

“(Nienhuis) is a heck of a quarterback and (Clayton) is a crazy athlete,” Simon said. “They were going to make plays. We just couldn’t let them go wild.”

Despite the Cardinals’ stellar play on defense, their offense couldn’t get much going against an Oconomowoc defense that had been sieve-like all year. And when Middleton took over with 9 minutes left in the game, it trailed, 13-12.

But the Cardinals embarked on a 14-play, 77-yard game-winning drive that junior running back Dion Huff capped with a seven-yard touchdown run.

During Middleton’s memorable march, it produced a bevy of key plays that kept its season alive.

At the outset of the drive, Cardinals senior wideout Myron Ashford drew a 15-yard pass interference play on third-and-9.

Quarterback Davis Roquet, who isn’t known for his running prowess, later picked up a fourth-and-3 and a third-and-5 with his feet.

Finally, Huff capped the drive with a powerful run off of left tackle. Roquet then ran in the two-point conversion to give Middleton a 20-13 lead.

“They played some pretty dang good coverage down the field,” Roquet said. “And when those guys are locked up, I have one option: run.”

Oconomowoc had one final chance and picked up a quick first down when Nienhuis found Clayton for 11 yards to the Raccoons 45. But the Cardinals’ defense immediately stiffened.

Nienhuis fired three straight incompletions when he was under heavy pressure from end Nate Helbach and linebacker Caleb Cymbalak. Then after an Oconomowoc timeout, Nienhuis threw for Clayton once again, but Fermanich and Ludwig broke the pass up.

“We knew we were going to give up a few plays,” Ludwig said. “We just had to make sure those plays can’t become bigger. Make the tackle, keep them in front of us, limit the damage.”

Middleton did that all night.

In the first half alone, the Raccoons crossed into Cardinals’ territory on all three of their drives. But Middleton kept Oconomowoc off the scoreboard — the first time all year the Raccoons were blanked in a half — and led, 6-0, at the break.

On Oconomowoc’s first possession of the game, Nienhuis and Clayton connected for 12 yards on a 4th-and-5. But Clayton fumbled and Middleton’s Joe Ludwig recovered.

On the Raccoons’ next possession, they put together a 10-play, 53-yard drive. But on fourth-and-3 from Middleton’s 20, Cardinals senior safety Jack Smith blitzed off the edge and knocked down a Nienhuis pass.

On the Raccoons’ third and final possession of the half, they drove to Middleton’s 33. But Nienhuis threw four straight incompletions and the Cardinals held.

“When we got into their territory, we just let off the gas pedal for whatever reason,” Clayton said. “It kind of sucks to go out that way. I don’t think we left everything on the field. And that’s going to bother me for a long, long time.”

Oconomowoc coach Ryan McMillen was certainly bothered by his team’s inability to finish.

“We have to finish drives,” McMillen said. “We moved the ball, but we didn't finish drives and we left points out there. It probably caught up to us in the end.”

Middleton broke through early in the second quarter on a 3-yard touchdown plunge by junior running back James Pabst. The point after was blocked, though, and the Cardinals’ lead was just 6-0.

Middleton could have extended its advantage just before halftime. But on back-to-back plays, Fermanich dropped what would have been touchdown passes.

The Raccoons, who play predominantly a 3-4 base defense, played 4-3 most of the night. Oconomowoc used several key offensive players on defense for one of the first times all season. And the Raccoons allowed 11.3 fewer points than their season average.

“It comes to playoff time and they’re going to play their studs,” Simon said. “They did a nice job on defense tonight. Give them credit.”

Oconomowoc went 73 yards in nine plays on its first possession of the second half and grabbed a 7-6 lead when Nienhuis and Clayton connected for a 3-yard touchdown.

Middleton, which makes its living on the ground, answered with an 85 yard drive in which 83 yards came through the air. Roquet and Fermanich connected for a 28-yard touchdown pass that put the Cardinals back in front, 12-7, with 4:09 left in the third quarter.

Oconomowoc answered with an 11-play, 67-yard drive that senior running back Jacob Rams capped with a 2-yard TD run that gave the Raccoons a 13-12 lead.

After both teams punted, Middleton forged a drive that won the game and kept its season alive.

“This was unbelievable,” Roquet said. “As a team, we just rely on each other and know the other person next to us is going to do their job. And it was just awesome to win like this.”

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