Four consecutive losses have created a feeling of urgency for the Mitchell High School football team.
The prospect of hosting a home playoff game took a serious blow with last week’s 42-20 loss to Sturgis, but stopping the slide has become a more important concern as the Class 11AA No. 5 Kernels head to Pierre at 7 p.m. today.
The third-ranked Governors are looking to bounce back from a seven-point loss to Brookings a week ago, but a bounce-back win could cause Mitchell to drop further in the standings, which currently show the Kernels ranked fifth and the Governors at third.
“I think we’ll find out a lot about our team this week in practice,” MHS head coach Kent Van Overschelde said. “We have to work toward our goal of playing our best football and we have to get out of our own way to focus on doing that. This week is huge in how we practice, how we prepare and the focus has to be on competing every single day so we can avoid the pitfall of having a disappointing performance.”
Putting pressure on the passer
All eyes will be focused on the Mitchell defense this week in hopes of a turnaround performance. A week after surrendering 531 yards to Brookings, the Kernels allowed 429 to Sturgis, including a season-high 384 through the air.
While Pierre has slowed down slightly from last season, the Governors are still averaging 434 yards per game. Maguire Raske leads the team with 952 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, but sophomore quarterback Lincoln Kienholz could be the key.
Kienholz has thrown for 1,242 yards and eight touchdowns, but he also has 13 interceptions, including a pair of four-pick outings. If the Kernels cannot get pressure on passing plays and Kienholz can extend plays, it could lead to a successful night for the Pierre signal caller.
“When the quarterback sits in the pocket, Mitchell does a great job of forcing you to take those short, easy throws or those low-percentage throws to the outside,” Pierre head coach Steve Steele said. “When the quarterback is mobile, that’s where some different zones open up when defensive players have to decide between pursuing the football and sticking on their receivers.”
Rejuvenating the run game
Offensively, Mitchell must get its running game back on track after being limited to 62 yards in the second half against Sturgis.
Parker Phillips could not crack the 100-yard barrier for the first time this season and he has one touchdown in the last three games after rushing for 14 in the first four. Finding balance with with Phillips (1,325 yards) and Tucker Vilhauer (717 yards and 7 touchdowns) is crucial, particularly with Kernel quarterbacks completing less than 25 percent of their passes this season.
Sturgis found success with backside pursuit, but Pierre presents another challenge with an active defensive front. Four Governors have at least eight tackles for a loss, led by Gunnar Gehring (11) and Regan Bollweg (nine), putting added pressure on the offense to be more successful on early downs to avoid passing situations.
“We have to be more productive on first down,” Van Overschelde said. “When you don’t have success, it can be a little demoralizing. … A situation like four-and-out or putting ourselves in a situation that’s uncharacteristic. Sometimes it’s easy to stand back and just rely on guys that have made some plays in the past.”