WILMOT — Tailgating in the neighborhood and on the grounds. Fireworks in the air. A stirring rendition of the National Anthem. The King and Queen and the Homecoming Court. A town painted in red.
Yes, they certainly know how to do football in Wilmot.
If you think that you’re going to surprise this town and this team with an unconventional attack, think again. After all, they’ve seen just about everything during their decade or so as one of the elite teams in the Southern Lakes Conference.
So when high-flying Elkhorn jumped out to a 6-0 lead on its opening drive on a 21-yard strike from SEC leading passer Mason Buelow to star wideout Jacob Mogensen, there was nary a ripple of worry in the crowd and certainly not among the players on a Panthers team that resoundingly responded with a 35-6 victory over the Elks.
“We were hungry,” said standout defensive back/wide receiver Joseph Tanski, who sealed the game with a late fourth-quarter interception of Buelow and hauled in a 22-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. “We wanted to go undefeated, but we didn’t. We learned a lot from the Waterford game.”
That game, a 47-14 setback to the ground-and-pound Wolverines, was still fresh on the minds of many as the calendar turned to Fall on a still-summerlike night.
“We were worried that we didn’t show what we really were,” said sophomore nose tackle Ethan Ivan, who helped lead an impressive defensive charge after the opening foray, “so we used this night to show that the Waterford game wasn’t what we were about. This game was what we’re about and we plan on going undefeated the rest of the regular season.”
First, there was the matter of overcoming that quick volley from the Elks, an eight-play, 65-yard march that culminated with the lightning strike from Buelow to Mogensen.
“I think our defensive staff did a great job after that first drive of talking to our kids, calming them down and figuring out what we had to do to slow ‘em down a little bit and stop them from throwing the ball on us all day,” said Wilmot coach Keiya Square, whose squad improved to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the SLC. “I think we did a great job of making those adjustments.”
Indeed, after Buelow started the game 6-of-7 for 65 yards in the first 2 minutes, 13 seconds, he completed only 11 of his last 27 passes for 77 yards over the next 45:47.
“I think our guys did a good job of just adjusting and … making them have to complete that (hitch route) time after time after time,” Square said. “It’s that give or take.”
Buelow, now has thrown for 1,119 yards on 166 attempts this season and worked in tandem with Mogensen (9 catches, 84 yards) and Mason Stebnitz (7 catches, 55 yards).
In the meantime, the Panthers got off to a fast start themselves behind their multidimensional senior quarterback Zach Watson, who controlled the tempo of the game, starting with a 5-yard scoring toss to tight end Korik Klein on a beautiful bootleg pass on a 3rd-and-goal with 7:16 left in the opening stanza.
“We were running the ball well and then we wanted to be able to get on the edge and overload a side,” Square said. “They were starting to put more guys in the box the closer we got to the goal line. We just wanted to give ‘em a different look and try to flood a side and get some guys open and Zach did a great job of finding Klein and he did a great job of catching it.”
The rest of the night, it seemed that the tidal wave was wearing No. 3 in black and red.
“He’s a playmaker,” Ivan said of Watson, who rushed for 119 yards (not including 14 yards lost on three sacks) and a touchdown and threw for 113 more and a pair of scores. “He can do everything and he’s very good at what he does. He can throw the ball, he can run the ball (and) he’s smart with the ball.”
After Elkhorn (2-3, 1-2) went three-and-out on its second series, the Panthers confidently went right back on the attack. This time, Austin Videlka covered the last 8 yards to cap a 12-play, 78-yard drive with 11:05 remaining before halftime.
Less than three minutes later, Wilmot was dancing in the end zone again when Watson (7-of-12) found Tanski in the right corner on a stirring hookup from 22 yards away with 8:20 left in the second quarter. The play capped a four-play, 58-yard drive.
“Once we get in the lead, we’re a hard team to beat,” said the slick-handling Watson, who scored the team’s fourth touchdown on a 3-yard burst with 8:28 left in the third quarter, all but salting the game away. “Waterford’s in the rear view. We just gotta focus on the next game.”
That’s the way things are in Wilmot. Football is the focus.