No. 7 Fairmont, Belle Plaine set to air it out

No. 50 Dominic Ortiz Junior Defensive Tackle

FAIRMONT — Even a 20 percent chance of rain at Mahoney Field in Fairmont on Friday night probably will not deter the Class 3A, No. 7-ranked Fairmont Cardinals (5-1) and Belle Plaine Tigers (3-3) from putting on an air show.

After sitting on the sideline since Week 2 with a sprained MCL, Belle Plaine senior quarterback Carsen Ladd unleashed 54 passes to amass 352 yards and three touchdowns to fuel a 27-18 South Central Red District football victory over the New Ulm Eagles last Friday night on the Tigers’ home turf.

Jake Mercado and Jackson Stauffacher, two of four wideouts in the Tigers’ spread offense, combined for 260 receiving yards, including all three scoring catches by Mercado.

“Belle Plaine’s quarterback is healthy and returned last week to have a great passing game against New Ulm,” Fairmont head coach Mat Mahoney said in reference to the 6-foot, 165-pound Ladd. “He can chuck it a long ways, and gets the football out of his hand quickly.

“But he’s (Ladd) not their only offensive weapon as No. 17 (running back Marcus Walsh) proves a great complement out of the backfield. At 6-foot and 200 pounds, he’s tough to bring down.”

Walsh, who sat out last week’s game due to a “nicked knee,” according to Belle Plaine mentor Justin Johnston, should be “good to go” this week.

In Ladd’s absence, Walsh literally carried the offensive load for the Tigers, including a 162-yard rushing performance to pace a 13-7 Week 5 victory over Worthington.

Across Mahoney Field, the Cardinals feature one of the best aerial attacks in southern Minnesota on the accurate arm strength of senior quarterback Nate Kallenbach and his bevy of skilled receivers.

Kallenbach, a 6-foot, 170-pounder, has completed 100 of 151 passes for 1,340 yards and 15 TDs this fall. The Fairmont signal-caller connected on 13 of 20 — nearly six passing attempts below the team’s average per game (25.8) — for 174 yards and two TDs in a muddy 42-13 district win over the Trojans at Worthington last Friday night.

“Defensively, we have to stop Kallenbach from getting in a rhythm back there,” said Johnston. “We’re going to have to put pressure on him so that he doesn’t run off a string of completions.

“His wide receivers run great routes and have dependable hands.”

Wyatt Quiring, a 6-3, 165-pound senior wideout, enters Week 7 with a team-best 41 catches for 560 yards and seven TDs, while 6-3, 190-pound senior tight end Brady Allen brings nine receptions for 133 yards and two scores. Both Quiring and Allen made scoring receptions in last Friday night’s win.

“I think we match up physically in the line with Fairmont, but they definitely have a height advantage with their receivers,” Johnston said in reference to the Cardinals’ pair of 6-2 wideouts in Sam Schwieger and Hayden Berhow, in addition to 6-3, 180-pound junior end Dustin Schultz. “The real key will be who can take who out of their rhythm on offensively the most effectively.”

Belle Plaine will look to utilize a four-man defensive front to disrupt Fairmont’s offensive plans, with middle linebacker Griffin Ruud looking to make stops via the pass or the run.

“They play a 4-3 scheme, and like to play man-to-man,” said Mahoney. “Now, our (coaching staff) job is to always be one step ahead of their defense in adjusting to down and distance.

“Whoever controls that (down and distance), will likely walk away with a win.”

The Cardinals’ defense, ignited by cornerback Daniel Reiter’s interception and fumble recovery for half of their plus-turnovers against Worthington, will look to leading tacklers Zac Ringnell and Collin Steuber to spearhead their 4-3 alignment in holding Belle Plaine in check.

“Both teams need a win to keep climbing their respective sectional standings,” said Mahoney. “They’re 3-3, but their record doesn’t indicate how good they are when healthy.

“They’re well-coached, and have been to the Class AAA state quarterfinals the last two years, so they’re going to be a handful this week.”

Johnston echoed his coaching counterpart’s pre-game sentiment.

“Fairmont’s a well-coached team, and always has a good plan of attack on both sides of the ball,” said Johnston. “Right now, we’re sitting at the No. 6 seed in our section (2 of Class AAA), and we need a win if we hope to better our position (in the QRF rankings).”

Ironically, Johnston and the Tigers defeated the Cardinals during Mahoney’s rookie season as head coach in the 2007 Section 2AAA quarterfinals, 26-19.

Mahoney and Fairmont, however, shut out Belle Plaine, 26-0, in the 2013 Section 3AAA championship game the last time the two teams squared off on the gridiron.