No. 3 Cardinals look to defuse No. 1 Chargers in state football quarterfinals

HONORING THE FLAG — Fairmont Cardinals head football coach Mat Mahoney, along with split end Levi Pooley (left), lineman Klay Brown (62) and lineman Gage Cyphers stand at attention during the national anthem during regular-season football action in Jordan. The Cardinals’ attention will be focused on Dassel-Cokato during Saturday’s 11 a.m. state quarterfinal in Prior Lake. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — Which will prove mightier — the run or the pass?

The QRF’s No. 1-ranked Dassel-Cokato Chargers will pit a four-pronged potent ground game against the No. 3 Fairmont Cardinals’ air-strike offense in an 11 a.m. Class AAA state football quarterfinal Saturday in Prior Lake to answer the question.

“There’s no doubt about it — we will face one of the best running teams in the state and probably one of the best running backs in Minnesota in Dassel-Cokato and Eli Gillman, respectively,” said Fairmont head coach Mat Mahoney, whose program will make the fifth state appearance of the current coach’s 15-year tenure and 11th overall.

Ironically, the Cardinals captured Class AAA state runner-up honors during their last state appearance in 2018, while the Chargers claimed second place in the same class in 2019 — the most recent of their four state bids.

“I’ve heard disgruntled fans upset that two of the top three teams, according to the QRF format, are playing each other in the first round of state, but that’s the luck — or lack thereof — of the draw,” said Mahoney. “It doesn’t matter to us whether we play them in the quarterfinals or the semifinals or the finals. We welcome the opportunity to play a great program.

“I agree with the old saying, ‘To be the best, you have to beat the best.'”

Fairmont’s 5-3 defensive alignment will face a Dassel-Cokato wishbone offense that averages a staggering 363.7 yards on the ground and just 24.5 through the air.

University of Montana commit Eli Gillman ignites the Chargers’ high-octane rushing attack with 1,684 yards on a yeoman’s 219 carries for a 7.7-yard per carry clip to complement 32 touchdowns.

The 6-foot, 200-pound senior halfback, however, is only one-fourth of Dassel-Cokato’s thundering backfield.

Keyton Johnson, a 6-0, 165-pound senior fullback, has amassed 693 yards on 84 totes for an 8.2 average and crossed the goal line 11 times to rank No. 2 behind Eli Gillman on the team.

Monte Gillman, Eli’s 5-6, 146-pound sophomore brother, will step to the artificial playing surface in Prior Lake on Saturday with 682 yards on 81 carries for an 8.4 clip to complement five TDs.

Greg Clark, a 6-1, 195-pound senior quarterback, rounds out the Chargers’ ground-and-pound effort with 353 yards on 50 carries for a 7.1 average to go with two TDs.

Senior linebacker Gavin Rodning, who tops the team with 82 tackles, and junior linebacker Aden Welcome, who’s No. 2 with 74 stops, will hope to have their hands full in powering Fairmont’s defense into action in the Twin Cities’ suburbs.

“Our coaching staff has made some adjustments along the way as we’ve learned from watching film on our previous games,” said Mahoney. “Our approach angles will have to be precise and our tackling will have to be sure-handed against a running team like Dassel (Cokato).”

Offensively, Fairmont senior quarterback Zach Jorgensen enters Saturday’s state quarterfinal having completed 92 of 158 passes for 58 percent en route to 1,738 yards and 22 TDs in only eight of the team’s 10 games this fall. Ironically, he missed two games due to a leg injury.

The Cardinals average 223.2 yards through the air and a respectable 118.7 more yards on the ground heading into the clash of two contrasting offensive styles.

Sure-handed senior receiver Eli Anderson has garnered a team-best 49 receptions for a single-season program-record 1,109 yards to complement 16 TDs.

The potent Anderson-from-Jorgensen combination struck like lightning for a school-record 96-yard scoring connection in the Cardinals’ 27-6 victory over Waseca during last Saturday’s Section 3 championship game in Janesville.

Similar to the Chargers’ multi-faceted ground game, the Cardinals feature three more skilled pass-catchers to go with Anderson.

Junior split end David Maakestad has 22 receptions for 381 yards and three TDs this fall, while sophomore wideout Levi Pooley and senior flanker Hudson Artz each have 11 catches and four scores. Pooley has 211 receiving yards, while Hudson Artz has 189 yards.

Will Dassel-Cokato’s 4-3 defense be able to slam the brakes on Fairmont’s high-octane offense via the airwaves?

“If the temperature’s in the 30s with no wind or rain, we should be able to run our offense without any problems,” said Mahoney. “Our effort, attitude and energy were all present in the section championship game, and we seemed to rediscover our confidence and that’s key at this time of the year.”

No. 6 Esko (10-0) plays No. 16 New London-Spicer (6-5) in the Class AAA state quarterfinal next to Fairmont and Dassel-Cokato. New London-Spicer upset highly-ranked Pierz for the Section 6 crown, 28-24.

In the top half of the bracket, No. 4 Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (9-1) battles No. 5 Annandale (8-2) in a state quarterfinal, while No. 10 Plainview-Elgin-Millville (9-2) takes on another late-season surger in No. 26 Breck (6-4).

The Class AAA state semifinals and finals are set for Saturday, Nov. 20, and Saturday, Nov. 27, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.


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