Keeping Waterford’s talented senior running back Tanner Keller in check for four quarters likely is going to prove to be quite the tall task throughout the season.
Visiting Bradford certainly gave that a go for the first half Friday night.
But eventually, Keller finally broke through.
With his team leading, 9-0 and deep in its own territory, Keller ripped off an 85-yard touchdown run to seal the deal in the Wolverines’ 15-0 non-conference home victory in the season opener for both teams.
Keller, a Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-State honorable mention selection last season, had just 77 yards rushing in the first half, but finished the night with 24 carries for 219, a 9.1 per-carry average.
The decisive touchdown was aided in large part by a key downfield block by Keller’s backfield mate, senior Dominic Miller, who had eight carries for 70 yards.
“That run doesn’t happen without Dominic’s block,” Waterford coach Adam Bakken said. “Everyone knows where those two are on every single play. I tell them they might as well get used to it. We have to find a way to utilize them both and understand that we are going to see eight, nine guys in the box sometimes.
“It’s not the first time that we’ve had a great backfield. I don’t know if we’ve had one as dynamic as those two. But that’s what we’re going to see.”
Bradford coach Troy Bowe was pleased with the defensive effort on both Keller and Miller, minus the one big play.
“(We held him down) except for that run,” Bowe said. “We didn’t set the edge (on the touchdown). ... We blitzed a guy inside who didn’t get there because they ran jet sweep on that play. It’s a 48-minute game, and there’s two kids (Keller and Miller) who you have to contain.
“But it was still a two-score game there. We still had a chance. We had to keep playing. I’m proud of our defensive kids. They kept playing. That’s all they scored after that. We were put in some tough spots.”
The first half was a tale of two defenses, as Waterford put the only points on the scoreboard at the 5 minute, 49 second mark of the first quarter on a 27-yard field goal by Michael Durand.
Bradford responded with its best scoring chance of the first half, as it drove to Waterford’s 27-yard line. A 44-yard field goal attempt by senior Arjan Osmani appeared to have plenty of distance, but it hit the right upright to keep Waterford with its 3-0 lead at halftime.
The drive was set up by an acrobatic 24-yard pitch and catch from Bradford sophomore quarterback Nate Olson to junior Damarion Williams, who out-jumped the defender and hauled in the pass.
After both teams exchanged punts to open play in the second half, Waterford reached the end zone for the first time in 2019 on a 1-yard plunge by Keller with 6:14 left in the third quarter.
Waterford took advantage of a short field, as Olson was sacked on third down to pin the Red Devils back to their own 8-yard line. After runs of 3 and 4 yards by Keller, Miller picked up 30 yards on a play to the outside to set up the touchdown.
Bradford finished with 228 total yards, including 154 passing, but struggled at times getting into a rhythm, Bowe said.
Even with those difficulties, the game never was truly out of reach, he added.
“We’ll get better,” Bowe said. “We’re starting a young quarterback, some young receivers, a young O-line. We’ll get them right. In all honesty, we were in the game. With seven minutes to go, we had the ball down two scores even after they had that long run.
“With a young group like we had, that’s pretty good on the road Week 1 because we’re going to get way better. We’ll look at the film, we’ll fix mistakes, and we’ll get these kids playing better next week. Hopefully, these kids will make good strides.”
Olson completed 15-of-43 passing attempts with one interception in his varsity debut under center. The Red Devils rushed 25 times for 74 yards, a statistic that needs to improve to help make them more balanced, Bowe said.
“We have to block better and run the ball more effectively to take some pressure off our young quarterback,” he said.
Will Darden led the Red Devils’ rushing attack with 50 yards on 13 carries, while Williams paced the receiving corps with eight catches for 81 yards.
Bakken was pleased with the win, but knows there’s plenty for his team to work on moving forward, namely cutting down its turnovers.
Waterford fumbled five times and lost three, including one at the Red Devils’ 10-yard line and another at the 35.
“We made turnovers in areas of the field that eventually will cost us a win,” he said. “I understand that it’s Week 1, that everybody has to improve and that turnovers do happen, but there’s times when you just have to value the ball, and you cannot turn it over.
“We played well enough on defense where those turnovers didn’t come back to hurt us. Against certain teams, the result of the game would be different. That’s what we have to learn from.”
Brock Lampe led Bradford’s defense with 9½ tackles, followed by Sayge Terrell with 7½ and Ethan Pergande with five. Miller and Aiden Webb each had three tackles for the Wolverines.