Lakeland football needed a win to get their season back on track. They got the win they needed with a home shutout for their first conference victory.
The Thunderbirds beat the Bluejays 35-0 at IncredibleBank Field on Friday night.
“It’s huge for the team. Starting 0-4 is really tough. Getting this win tonight I think it’s going to really propel us forward to finish out the season really strong,” Kort Meyer said. “It’s huge for our team and for the morale and for everything.”
Offense, defense and special teams came together for the Thunderbirds in their most complete victory of the year.
Noah Bruckner bounces one to the outside for his third touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter against Merrill Friday, Sept. 15 at IncredibleBank Field in Minocqua. Bruckner ran for three touchdowns in the game.
(Photo by Brett LaBore/Lakeland Times)
“The most complete performance that we have played the entire season. The aggressiveness that they played downhill with, the way they pursued to the football, their ability to be ballhawks. Our defense was incredible. You look at the special teams and the special teams being able to play complementary football and really set the offense and the defense up for success,” coach Dan Barutha said. “Our kickoff team did a tremendous job tonight, forcing Merrill to drive the long field. Our return team did a great job being able to set the offense up with short fields, with higher, much higher percentages for scoring. And then you look at our offense and 300-something unofficially rushing alone.”
Lakeland’s 35 points more than doubled their season high from the season. The shutout was their first of the season.
All five touchdowns by the Thunderbirds were scored on the ground — three by running back Noah Bruckner and two by quarterback Meyer.
An eight-play drive in the first quarter netted the Thunderbirds their first points of the day. All eight plays were runs. Meyer, Bruckner and Leonard Chosa had first down runs. From the one-yard line, Meyer punched the ball in for a touchdown. Chosa ran in the two-point conversion.
“Our coaches preach … our offense being the surge and, I’m biased to the lineman, blowing guys off the line of scrimmage, just setting a mean, nasty tone and finishing like a bully as (coach Matt Schoeneman) likes to say, and I feel like we did that tonight,” offensive lineman Zane Amershek said.
One of the things Barutha and the Thunderbirds look for are explosive plays. There were plenty of them, including a big run for a touchdown.
“We want to run the football. Our guys played really well. We had some broken plays and guys just had to go make plays, and they did just that. When you look offensively at the amount of explosive plays,” Barutha said. “It was certainly in our favor with the amount of explosive plays that we made tonight. The offensive line, tight ends did a great job, really shared the workload. A lot of guys touched the ball tonight.”
Lakeland’s defense forced a three-and-out and a punt by the Bluejays. Carmelo Roche-Vetterneck had a sack to force a long fourth down.
“All three phases of our football team did their job,” Chosa said. “We played great complementary football, and we bring the hammer.”
On the first play of Lakeland’s next drive, Bruckner ran the ball 52 yards for a touchdown. It was Bruckner’s first touchdown of the season. Maccoy Holmquist made the extra point. Lakeland had their largest lead of the season at 15-0.
“One of the things that we saw tonight from Noah, and I told him this on the sideline and really it started yesterday in practice. There was a renewed sense of aggressiveness,” Barutha said. “He was laying stiff arms and he had just had a nasty mentality about him when he carried the football. He was aggressive, and he was nasty, and he broke tackles, and he ran with a downhill purpose, and you saw the same thing from Kort.”
Kaiden Henrich picked up Merrill’s second first down of the game in the second quarter. They had punted the ball four times to that point.
The drive ended up in an interception by Michael Schettino, the first of the season for him.
“The defense was good tonight because we had more consistency at practice with the guys who were available and guys who were able to be there,” Barutha said. “Being able to have our full complement of guys really helped us. Less distractions that we had to worry about this week compared to last week.”
Defense led to offense once again. Bruckner carried the ball three times with the third carry going in the end zone. He ran it six yards for his second touchdown of the game.
“Watching film, we knew kind of what we were going to see of their defensive front, and we were just talking, we got some new guys in the mix. We were just making a point to talk and making sure guys knew (what) we’re doing with calls at the end,” Amerhsek said. “We had calls from tackle to tackle, everybody knew what they were doing. We never had a play where guys were lost. That’s what made it.”
Another defensive gem by Lakeland kept Merrill off the scoreboard. With the Bluejays driving inside Lakeland territory, Talon Haling came up with an interception.
Lakeland led 21-0 at halftime.
The Bluejays had good field position early in the second half with a blocked punt by Carson Brooks. The Thunderbird defense came up clutch again.
Tyrone Moore had a tackle for a loss. The next play, Chosa had his first career interception.
“Before the game, me, the linebackers and the d-line, we made a point that we have to hit people,” Chosa said. “I feel like we hit them very well tonight. We played very mean and aggressive.”
The interception led to the most explosive play of the game. On Lakeland’s second play of their next drive, Meyer ran down the sidelines, taking it all the way for a 71-yard touchdown run.
“I saw the pocket collapse, and I wanted to buy some time and roll out. I wasn’t expecting to get that many yards. I was expecting to kind of run out of bounds,” Meyer said. “My receivers set some good stock bocks downfield. And credit to them. I wouldn’t have gotten into the end zone if it wasn’t for them blocking downfield. A heads up play for everyone on the field.”
In the fourth quarter, the Thunderbirds forced Merrill into a turnover on downs. Lakeland, in good field position, put the exclamation point on the game with a Bruckner 12-yard touchdown run. Holmquist made the extra point, his third of the game.
“The rushing attack starts with the offensive line and by extension of that our tight end. When you talk about the rushing attack and the offensive line and our tight end, without those guys busting their butt and trying to have proper head placement, sticking their feet in the ground and being able to play with low leverage,” Barutha said. “And if you have guys being able to attack through the line and run four, five, six yards without being touched, that shows how good our blocking is up front in terms of individual technique, in terms of our aggressiveness and in terms of our knowledge of what our scheme is to be able to apply it.”
The shutout win was the first for Lakeland since they beat Antigo 20-0 on Sept. 23, 2022.
Up next, the Thunderbirds (1-4, 1-2) take on Antigo in their second road game of the season on Friday, Sept. 22. The game starts at 7 p.m. The Thunderbirds still have all their goals in front of them.
“The situation is the same, but the response and how you handle adversity are very different. One of the comments that I made to the guys tonight was all of our goals are still in front of us. Every year we want to be a playoff team. Every year our goal is to be a playoff team,” Barutha said. “While the first four games really brought forth things that we need to work on, tonight we played well and our goals are still in front of us.”
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].