Tim Crisco (5) and Isaiah Draeger (25) combine to make the tackle on Merrill’s Nik Zastrow on Saturday, Oct. 5 at Jay Stadium. Photo by Brett Labore/Lakeland Times.
Tim Crisco (5) and Isaiah Draeger (25) combine to make the tackle on Merrill’s Nik Zastrow on Saturday, Oct. 5 at Jay Stadium. Photo by Brett Labore/Lakeland Times.
The Lakeland football team found a way to beat Merrill on Saturday afternoon.

The Thunderbirds beat the Bluejays 14-7 at Jay Stadium in the cold and rain to keep their playoff hopes alive. 

“Getting back in the win column is always great,” coach Dan Barutha said. “The defensive staff challenged the guys in the second half to pitch a shut out and they did. It was a tremendous effort and the way the offensive line played today was excellent.”

First half

After picking up a first down on the Bluejays’ first drive of the game, a penalty forced a punt. That’s when the Thunderbirds blocked the punt and set themselves up with great field position.

Erik Albertus took the carry on the Thunderbirds’ first drive of the game 29 yards for a first down. He finished the game with 84 yards rushing and one touchdown.

A few short carries and an incomplete pass later, the Thunderbirds had a fourth down situation.

They went for it and it paid off. Michael Ouimette threw a six-yard touchdown to Cody Wolfe for the game’s first score. The two-point try was unsuccessful. Lakeland led 6-0.

“Mike had some pressure in his face and just put it up there to give Cody a chance,” Barutha said. “Mike delivered a perfectly catchable pass, Cody got himself in the end zone and just hauled it down.” 

Ouimette finished the day 3 of 5 for 30 yards and a touchdown throwing. He added 35 yards on 17 attempts on the ground as well. 

Timmy Handlin ran for two first downs on the Bluejays’ next drive. But they punted it away eventually.

Lakeland’s next drive did not see as much success as the first. Ouimette gained some yards on the ground, but a penalty hurt them. They punted it as well, holding on to a 6-0 lead.

The Bluejays put together a nice drive midway through the second quarter. Dejong ran it 12 yards for a first down. Then, Nik Zastrow ran for nine yards. Eddie Collinsworth followed that up with a first down carry. The triple option attack was working.

Quarterback Caleb Dejong finished with 51 yards rushing, Handlin 45 yards rushing and Nik Zastrow 38 yards rushing.

The drive came to Lakeland territory, but stalled out when Caleb Timm ran for negative yards. The Bluejays tried a field goal to get on the board, but it was no good.

Lakeland took over inside their own 20-yard line with 1:13 to go. Ouimette threw a quick outlet pass to Albertus that looked like a pass. The whistle never blew and the Bluejays pounced on the fumble. It was Bluejay ball.

“From a coaching philosophy standpoint, we wanted to see if we could exploit them on the outside and then depending on how that play went, that really set the tone for the rest of the drive,” Barutha said. “If we hit a big play there, then we were going to try and move the ball downfield. We had all three timeouts at that point, take a shot vertically to try to get it in the end zone to get the 14 point swing around the half.”

Merrill took advantage of the great field position and scored a touchdown. Dejong ran it in from one yard out for an easy touchdown. The extra point went through and the Bluejays went to half up 7-6.

Second half

Down by a point at the half, the Thunderbirds wanted to set the tone right away on offense. A third and 13 presented itself early on. Ouimette found his target Chase Hunt for a first down catch.

Later in the drive, the Bluejays hurt themselves with a penalty. A Bluejay got called for a personal foul, a late hit on Ouimette after his short run. It gave the Thunderbirds good field position in Bluejay territory.

A couple plays later, Ouimette hit Hunt again for 10 yards on second down. Then came up a 3rd and goal from inside the five-yard line. Albertus took the carry and ran it in the go-ahead touchdown. 

The Thunderbirds quickly lined up for a two-point conversion. Ouimette ran it in himself and scored, and the Thunderbirds now led 14-7.

“We challenged our guys to be able to step up,” Barutha said. “We put it on the offensive line and those guys paved great paths for our running game today. Credit goes to the offensive line (as well as) Devan Tessmer as the lead fullback, leading the way for Erik.” 

The Bluejays had the ball next. After giving up a first down, Lakeland defense stood tall and prevented a long drive from starting. 

The ball went back to the Thunderbirds. This time the Bluejay defense came up with the big stop. The Thunderbirds could not capitalize on it, forced to punt. Ouimette kicked a punt that rolled and rolled and rolled and sneaked into the end zone. It was a touchback, but the Thunderbirds flipped the field.

Now in the fourth quarter, the Bluejays were gaining some momentum on their next drive. Dejong took it himself for a first down. Then, the Bluejays converted another third down with a carry.

But, the drive stalled out and the Bluejays looked to punt. The Lakeland defense prepared for a fake, but it was punted away. Midway through the fourth, the Thunderbirds still led 14-7.

“Number one, we played disciplined assignment football and we were in position to be able to make plays and against a triple option offense you have to be in position and do your job to be able to make plays and trust that the guy next to you is going to do his,” Barutha said. “The second thing I thought we did a great job of is gang tackling. We pursued to the football really well today and we rallied to the football.” 

The Thunderbird offense was tasked with putting together a nice drive, potentially a finishing blow. The Bluejay defense again came up with another stop. It was another three and out for Lakeland.

With 4:42 left in the game, the Bluejays had the ball back down a touchdown. 

On second down, Handlin picked up three yards. Then, Zastrow picked up two yards to set up a big fourth and one. Dejong called his own number and sneaked it for the first. 

Now there was 2:40 left in the game and the Bluejays had over 50 yards to get to the end zone. Back-to-back false starts did not help their cause.

The Bluejay offense had a first and 20 in front of them. Dejong started with a pass to Piersen Pyan that just fell incomplete. A shovel pass to Zastrow followed for four yards. Then they went backwards on 3rd and 16.

With time running out, the Bluejays were faced with picking up a first down on 4th and 17. Both teams took timeouts before the play started.

Dejong threw an incomplete pass, overthrowing his receiver. Lakeland took over with 27 seconds left. The Thunderbirds took a knee and the game ended. Lakeland found a way to make the big stop.

“Our communication I thought was really, really solid in terms of their formations and then our coaches’ communication on the sideline to our guys in terms of what the tendencies were and our guys were barking out tendencies as well on the defense,” Barutha said.

The big picture

The win put Lakeland 4-3 overall, 2-3 in conference. The Thunderbirds need one more conference win to become playoff eligible. 

Their next game comes Friday, Oct. 11 at home against conference foe Ashland starting at 7 p.m.

Brett LaBore may be reached at brett@lakelandtimes.com or sports@lakelandtimes.com.