MHS football midseason report: Passing game growth, turnover trouble and promising second-half outlook
Four takeaways from the first four games of the season for the Mitchell High School football team.
MITCHELL — Four games played, four observations.
The Mitchell High School football team is nearing the midpoint of its nine-game regular-season schedule with a 1-3 record. Here are four items — three early trends and one look at the schedule to monitor moving forward — on the Kernels performance so far:
Expanded air attack outshining run game
While normally reliable, the Mitchell High School football team's rushing attack hasn't quite found its footing this season, allowing the passing game to expand rapidly.
Nearly half of Mitchell's 575 yards on the ground came in a 256-yard Kernel Bowl showing against Sturgis, which was also the start of a three-game streak of 100-plus-yards passing games by Treyson Schulz. Last season, Schulz passed for 834 yards in 10 games. Through four games this season, the senior quarterback has 446 yards through the air (372 in the past three games), while also leading the Kernels in rushing yards (152).
“It’s nice to see these guys have some success, play with some joy and play the right way,” said Mitchell head coach Kent Van Overschelde of the passing game after Sept. 16 game in Aberdeen. “With a little bit of time, Treyson Schulz has proven pretty effective in there.”
But even Schulz's growth from last year to this might not size up to the emergence of A.J. Siemsen as a top receiver. Used both as a downfield target and adept runner after the catch in the screen game, Siemsen has already hauled in more passes for more yards this season (17 for 220) than he did last season when he was already among Mitchell's best pass catchers with 13 catches for 203 yards and two scores.
After a quiet first game against Yankton, the 6-foot-2 senior caught three passes for 55 yards and one touchdown in the Kernel Bowl game against Sturgis. The next week on the road against Pierre, Siemsen was a bright spot in the Mitchell offense's tough outing, recording seven more receptions for 55 yards. Then last weekend in Aberdeen, he had the best game of his MHS career, hauling in six passes for 108 yards and another touchdown.
An additional wrinkle in the Kernel passing game has been the use of Mick Dailey and Jagger Tyler on trick plays to great success. Dailey, a running back, had two passing touchdowns covering 7 and 20 yards (the longer to Siemsen) in the Kernel Bowl game, while Tyler, who plays a variety of roles within the offense, found Siemsen for a 50-yard gain at Aberdeen.
In total, Mitchell's passing output has been 550 yards, just 25 fewer yards than the rushing output.
Big plays, slow starts still bothersome
The defense was a problem point for last year's Kernel team that gave up nearly 34 points per game, the second-worst mark in Class 11AA ahead of only a winless Douglas team. Further, Mitchell gave up 6.6 yards per play for the season broken down to 7.4 yards per play in seven losses and 4.9 yards per play in three wins.
As such, limiting big plays was a point of emphasis for the Kernels entering this season, and though playing two of the top teams in the class has inflated the average from a smaller sample size, Mitchell's defense is right there again this season. The Kernels have allowed 36 points per outing and 8.1 yards per play, leading to defensive backs Jagger Tyler and Bryce Palmer ranking first and fourth on the team in tackles with 33 and 16, respectively.
The offense, for its part, hasn't helped out the defense by starting strong and keeping the Kernels in games in the early stages.
Mitchell has allowed at least one first-quarter score in all four games with no reply, as opponents have a 52-0 edge in the first 12 minutes of games. For the first half, Mitchell has been outscored 95-21, while trailing 49-40 in second-half scoring.
Turnovers start to stack up
Last Friday's 27-13 defeat on the road at Aberdeen Central was marred by turnovers.
Mitchell gave the ball away six times (five fumbles and one interception) and was unable to take it back even once, save for a turnover on downs. The first two fumbles effectively spotted the Golden Eagles a 14-point lead less than four minutes into the contest. From there, the Kernels played to a 13-13 stalemate despite four more turnovers.
That's to say without such an overwhelming disparity in mistakes and misfortune, Mitchell could well be 2-2 and still ranked No. 5 heading into what could be the Kernels' toughest test of the season this Friday against Class 11AAA No. 1 Sioux Falls Jefferson.
Prior to last Friday, Mitchell had turned the ball over four times in the first three games — a manageable number — though three came on Sept. 10 at Pierre. That adds to nine giveaways in the last eight quarters, which is a trend that will need to be corrected in order for the Kernels to get back in the win column during the back half of their schedule. Mitchell committed a total of three turnovers in its three wins last season but had 22 giveaways in seven losses.
“We don’t have a question of effort; our guys have played hard,” Van Overschelde said. “But with that, our guys can be better. I don’t think we've reached our ceiling in any way. A lot of things on both sides of the ball are fixable mistakes, so we can to go back to work, find those positives and address those things we need to grow and move forward as the season progresses.”
There's no way around it. Friday's homecoming game against Sioux Falls Jefferson will be difficult in the same way that earlier matchups against Yankton and Pierre proved to be out of reach for Mitchell.
But following the Cavaliers' trip to Joe Quintal Field, a challenging early schedule seems to tip in favor of the Kernels for three straight weeks.
A Sept. 30 road game at Spearfish is followed by home dates with Watertown and Huron. All three of those opponents also only have one win to date and the Kernels have had recent success against each of them. In fact, Mitchell's three wins in 2021 came against the Spartans, Arrows and Tigers.
“That (winning) is what you work for and hope for,” Van Overschelde said after the Sept. 10 game in Pierre. “No one wants continue to grind it out and not see some success, but we have to do some things better.”