Winning the turnover battle proved to be the advantage the Wolves needed as they rallied for a 20-7 win over winless Wadena-Deer Creek Friday night at Ostlund Field.
Steven Hausken intercepted two passes in the red zone, Riley Welk had a pick in the first half inside the Wolves’ 10-yard line, and Jack Slagle, Ethan Anderson, Josh Kuhlman and Welk had some key pass break-ups to keep the Wolverines out of the end zone in the second half.
The win moves Walker-Hackensack-Akeley to 3-1 as they go on the road for two straight games at Red Lake and Cass Lake-Bena.
Coach Aaron Pfeiffer said the defense really stepped up in the second half.
“It felt like they had the ball more than we did, but once we figured out what their bread and butter was, we settled down. We didn’t blitz the backers so much but instead got some heat from our linemen,” he said. “That was a better recipe for us. We had some clutch plays in the second half. Our defense was stout at the end. They could have easily bent and broke, but the guys didn’t, and we kept them out of the end zone.”
The Wolves may have come in thinking this was going to be a cake walk, considering the 0-3 record of Wadena-Deer Creek. WHA also shot themselves in the foot a number of times with costly penalties that negated big plays and two four-quarter fumbles deep in their end.
Wadena-Deer Creek’s size and speed controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the first half and parts of the second. Pfeiffer said it came down to the adjustments the coaches made and the play of his team.
“Their size and speed was effective. We talked before the game and said they have the ability to make plays, we just have to be calm and know that we are better and our breaks will come. I’m proud of the boys for believing in that philosophy,” Pfeiffer said. “At times we were our own worst enemy. I tip my hat to Wadena; they are playing tougher than a 0-4 team.”
The Wolves narrowly out-gained the Wolverines 294 to 278 with WHA getting 226 yards on the ground. Hausken led with 63 yards on 14 carries, Gavin Johannsen rushed nine times for 56 yards, MacFarlane had 54 yards on three carries and Welk 50 yards on 11 runs. Welk also completed 8-13 passes for 68 yards and a score.
Johannsen caught the lone touchdown pass and finished with four receptions for 33 yards. Connor Craven caught two passes for 15 yards and Hausken and Anderson each had one reception for 11 and nine yards, respectively.
Easily the biggest play of the night was MacFarlane’s 43-yard reverse that came in the fourth quarter and set up the touchdown that gave WHA a two-touchdown lead.
“The reverse was huge and well-executed by everyone. Ethan and Riley both had great blocks on the outside, and Jackson’s ability to have fresh legs. The air was really heavy and you could see the guys running the ball were tired,” Pfeiffer said. “Jackson gave us a real lift there and it put the momentum back on our side.”
In addition to the three takeaways, WHA defenders broke up eight other Payton Rondestvedt passes and had a couple tackles for losses. Welk led with eight total tackles, Colton Hein and Carson Strosahl each had six tackles, and Connor Craven and Johannsen each had five.
WHA won the toss and elected to receive the opening kick-off. Both teams turned the ball over on downs the opening possession. On Walker’s second possession, Welk got outside and picked up about 20 yards on a fourth-and-eight play, but a holding penalty forced a punt.
A nice return by Hunter Hawkins moved the ball across midfield to the 48. Three plays later Welk had the first takeaway on a pass he snared at the seven and returned 70 yards to the 23. Four plays later the Wolves turned the ball over again on downs at the 19.
Eight plays later the Wolverines scored on Rondestvedt’s 23-yard run around the left end, breaking a couple tackles along the way. The scoring play would not have been possible if not for a penalty where the Wolves jumped offsides on fourth-and-seven. That moved the ball five yards closer, and the Wolverines easily got the two yards they needed.
Walker quickly answered with a 66-yard drive with 1:26 left in the half. Welk and Hausken each had two big runs on the possession, with Welk picking up eight yards on fourth-and-two, and Hausken 18 yards two plays later.
After Welk and Johannsen connected on a six-yard pass play, Welk was injured on a two-yard run and had to leave the game for one play. Hein came in and handed the ball to Johannsen who picked up 12 yards. On the next play Welk found Johannsen open over the middle, and the junior ran through the defense for a 17-yard score.
Mason Schneider’s kick missed left, and the half ended with the visitors ahead 7-6.
In the second half, Wadena received the kick-off, another deep drive by Schneider, and started at the 21. The defense did its job and held the Wolverines to negative yards and took over possession just short of midfield. Eleven plays later, and after converting a second fourth-down play, Johannsen scored on a four-yard run on a nice surge by the offensive line. WHA elected to go for two, but no one was open and Welk was tackled well short of the goal line.
The next time the Wolverines touched the ball, they picked up two first down before they started to go backwards. Wadena was flagged three times for 20 yards, including a false start on third and 15.
Anderson returned the punt 14 yards to the 39. Two plays later, MacFarlane took the reverse handoff, and with a key block by Welk, sprinted 43 yards to the 17. After three plays where Johannsen picked up 16 yards, Welk scored on a one-yard sneak, and then ran in the conversion for a 20-7 lead with 11:22 left in the fourth.
On the ensuing possession, Wadena marched from their 25 to Walker’s four. After an incomplete pass, delay-of-game penalty and tipped pass, Craven forced Rondestvedt out of the pocket, and his pass fell short.
After picking up a first down, the Wolves coughed the ball up for the first time at the 26 with under six to play. Two plays later Hausken picked off a pass in the end zone, but WHA gave it right back just outside the 25 on a second fumble. Hausken redeemed himself on the fumble with his second interception at the 19 that he returned near midfield, with the return negated on a penalty.
WHA was able to run out the final 2:54 after picking up two first downs.