The Plymouth football team thought they could compete for an Eastern Wisconsin Conference title this year.
They’re awfully close to making that preseason wish come true.
The Panthers have been red-hot through seven weeks, amassing a 7-0 record while outscoring opponents by an average of nearly 36 points per game.
But players and coaches know their biggest test of the year awaits in their regular-season finale tonight, when Plymouth travels to also-undefeated Two Rivers.
“It just makes for a great atmosphere for a high school game for us both to be 7-0 coming into this last game and having our schedule meet up at this point in the season,” Panthers coach Dan Knaus said before his team practiced Wednesday.
“Coming into the final game 7-0 was kind of one of our goals coming into the season, and we wanted to play for a conference championship. All those things are right where we wanted to be,” he said. “I think it’s just kind of an irony that who the conference championship game matchup is against, happens to be the last game of the year.”
Tonight’s game will indeed determine the winner of this year’s EWC crown. And some Panthers players know the pressure is on their shoulders.
Lately, Plymouth has kept a warm seat atop the conference, winning the league title two of the last three years (and five of the last nine).
Two Rivers, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the EWC’s upper echelon. The Raiders sat dead last in the conference in 2008, but have since worked their way up the charts, finishing in a three-way tie for third place in 2010, according to WIAA records. Last year, Two Rivers fell into the league’s bottom half again.
“So we’re expected to win,” Plymouth senior Owen Henriksen said before practice Wednesday.
Two Rivers could threaten to buck those expectations, though.
The Raiders are led by more-than-capable quarterback Brett Kasper, who leads the league in passing this year with 2,099 yards, 26 touchdowns and 183 completions, according to the Wisconsin Sports Network, which tracks high school football stats in the state. He’s thrown just six interceptions in 264 pass attempts.
(By comparison: Waupun’s Keegan Pinch is second in the EWC with 1,132 yards passing — just more than half of Kasper’s production.)
The Raiders’ Dexter Smith leads the conference in catching, with 936 yards (133 per game) and 12 touchdowns. Teammate Bobby Geiger isn’t far behind; his seven touchdowns this year are second-best in the conference.
“Part of what they do is not downfield passing — a lot of what they do is the little bubbles and the rockets and they get their athletes out in space,” Knaus observed, noting Two Rivers’ receivers get “a ton of yards after-catch.”
“And that’s what we’ve been working on, open-field tackling, this week and focusing on those types of things,” Knaus said. “They’re a big YAC team; they’re going to catch you on little slants and little bubbles and then let their athletes run.”
Henriksen, one of Plymouth’s linebackers, said the Raiders’ powerful offense isn’t putting too much pressure on the Panthers defense, noting that if players stick to tonight’s game plan, things should go “just fine.”
“I feel as though we’re confident but not overconfident,” Henriksen said. “I feel like (Two Rivers) will be a good test.”
Knaus noted his roster boasts some potent offensive threats of his own, though.
That would include quarterback Kollin Neils. The 6-foot-2, 170-pound junior is fourth in the conference this year in passing yards (903), and is completing nearly as many passes as Kasper (62.6 percent, to Kasper’s 69.3). Neils also has a slightly better quarterback rating (116.7, to Kasper’s 116.3), according to the Wisconsin Sports Network.
“If he could throw 40 times a game, I think he could put up numbers that Kasper puts up,” Knaus said of Neils, who has thrown just 99 passes this year.
Plymouth’s best chances to turn the tables on Two Rivers’ offense may lie in the running game, where the Raiders are weaker. Kasper, Two Rivers’ leading rusher, has contributed just 338 yards this year, or about 48 per game, according to sports network stats.
Plymouth senior Eric Roberts, on the other hand, is among the conference’s best rushers. He’s carried the ball 103 times this year for 764 yards and an EWC-best 10 touchdowns.
Asked what he had been doing this week to prepare for tonight’s game, Roberts said he’s tried sticking to his normal routine at practice.
Then again, he knows tonight’s showdown will be anything but routine.
“This last game is literally it,” Roberts said. “It’s the biggest game of the year right now, and Two Rivers is thinking the same thing.”