Returning to the scene where their football dreams came true a year ago, the Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks will head into the Metrodome Saturday two steps away from repeating the feat of becoming Class A state champions.
Standing in the Blackjacks' way, looking to prevent Dawson-Boyd from even reaching the second step, is the Bethlehem Academy Cardinals. With the second-best scoring defense in Class A, allowing just 8.4 points per game, the Cardinals will do everything they can to impede the Blackjacks' progress.
The Cardinals find themselves in the same position the Blackjacks were in last year - heading to the Prep Bowl for the first time in school history. They're a team that can put up points, ranking 10th in Class A in scoring offense at 34.2 points per game. But where they clearly excel is on the defensive side of the ball. To get to their first state tournament, they blew out 2011 state semifinalist Blooming Prairie 56-13 in the Section 1A title game. Then in the first round of the state tournament, they took out Sleepy Eye St. Mary's, another semifinalist from a year ago, by a score of 43-12. The defense picked off four passes and held SESM to just 58 rushing yards in the game.
The 10-2 Cardinals have yet to allow a team to surpass 14 points in a game this season, and the Blackjacks (11-1 overall) know their high-powered offense will have a tough test ahead.
"They're fast," said Dawson-Boyd quarterback/ safety Joey Lee. "Their secondary is fast. In that Sleepy Eye St. Mary's game, which was some of the film we got, they did a great job of keeping up with the receivers on the perimeter and then they also have a couple of guys who can rush the passer, so obviously they're good against the pass. And they're definitely good against the run, as well.
"They're only giving up like eight points a game, so they have a very good defense and hopefully we have a couple plays where we can find some creases and making a couple plays against them."
BA has certainly faced and defeated some strong teams this season, and Dawson-Boyd will likely be the toughest they've faced yet. The Blackjacks rank third in the state in scoring offense at 42.4 points per game, and their defense is fifth in points allowed at 11.6 points per game.
Dawson-Boyd's defense was up to task last week in the first round of the state tournament, holding a run-oriented Browerville team to just 85 yards on 30 carries in a 35-20 win in Morris. The Blackjacks also picked off two passes in the game.
Again, Dawson-Boyd will be facing a run-heavy team with a quarterback that is very mobile. But unlike Browerville, which ran a veer offense, Blackjack head coach Cory Larson said the Cardinals run a more basic offense where quarterback Kyle Filzen gets his yards on plays such as well-executed sweeps or draws. Filzen had 18 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns, and completed just two of six pass attempts for 52 yards against SESM.
Like they've done against Canby, Minneota/Lincoln HI, and now Browerville, the Blackjacks will look to limit the Cardinals' rushing game and make them throw.
"It starts with the kids up front," Larson said. "Certainly a big goal of ours is to try to take something away that they do really well and kind of force them into a game that they're not necessarily comfortable with."
Scoring points early also helps put the opposition in more passing situations, and that's something the Blackjacks have been able to do well. Even with top running back Justin Lee far from 100 percent with a hamstring injury, Dawson-Boyd put up 458 yards of total offense against Browerville with a balanced offensive attack. Joey Lee completed 12 of 19 passes for 179 yards, while junior running back Michael Anyasike carried the ball 26 times for 211 yards to lead the rushing attack.
Anyasike started the season as the team's No. 3 running back behind Justin Lee and Garth Ochsendorf. But Ochsendorf suffered a serious knee injury near the end of the regular season and Justin Lee has been fighting through a hamstring injury the past few weeks, leaving a bigger role for the 5-foot-11, 160-pound Anyasike. And he's certainly stepped up.
"He's continually improved as far as reading his blocks and making the right reads and things like that," Joey Lee said. "Going into the season he was probably looked at as more of a defensive player for us and probably our third running back, but with the injuries we've had he's really stepped in and done a great job.
"He's probably more of a speed running back than Justin is or Garth was, but we can use that to our advantage. And he's strong, so he's definitely strong enough to run it up the middle. He's done a good job of improving in a lot of areas and has been a huge part of our offense in not just the Browerville game, but also when we played Canby in sections and he had over 100 yards."
The Blackjacks had more injury problems in the second half of the Browerville game when top receiver Nathaniel Huot went out with a back injury, but Larson said he should be good to go for Saturday's semifinal.
It will be an early start for the Blackjacks and Cardinals, who will kick off at 9 a.m. The Blackjacks dealt with early starts just fine last year as they rolled to big wins in both of their games at the Metrodome. Joey Lee said the 9 a.m. start won't play a factor for them at all.
"We're going to have a team breakfast at 6 a.m., so that's going to be a little bit weird," Lee said, "but I think once we get to the Dome it will kind of set in that it's a semifinal game, so if you can't get up for that one, you've probably got something wrong with you. We shouldn't have any problem getting up and being focused and ready to go."