High school football: Can pass-first teams succeed in Minnesota playoffs’ wintery weather? They think so

Temperatures will approach freezing in parts of the metro Friday night. Winds will be in the double-digits at kickoff for many of high school football’s Class 6A first-round playoff games.

On Saturday, there is a chance of snow when all other classes compete in their respective section semifinal games.

In other words, welcome to the Minnesota high school football playoffs.

Bad weather has seemingly become synonymous with outdoor, postseason high school football games in this part of the country. It is those conditions that leave so many believing you must be able to run the ball to win games this time of year.

And, depending on those conditions, that could be true.

East Ridge has featured a pass-heavy offense in recent years with gunslinger Tanner Zolnosky at quarterback. But in its second-round playoff game in Maple Grove in 2021, the air game wasn’t much of an option.

“I think it was a 40-mile-per-hour, gusting wind,” Raptors coach Dan Fritze recalled. “You couldn’t punt into the wind. It was ridiculous. You couldn’t throw deep.”

East Ridge lost that game 42-13 to Maple Grove. That same night, Stillwater’s potent passing attack, featuring quarterback Max Shikenjanski, was held to seven points in a loss to Wayzata.

“When it gets to just above freezing, and it’s rainy and windy, that is a real killer. So for us, we can’t be one-dimensional. We can’t get into that situation,” Fritze said. “So we have to have the ability to run to the point where if we find ourself in that kind of weather, that we’re not completely hamstrung by it because we’re so reliant on the pass.”

Apple Valley was in that situation on Tuesday. Its section quarterfinal game against Bloomington Kennedy was played in a stiff rain. The Eagles throw the ball more than your average high school football team. But, on Tuesday, they ran all over Kennedy en route to a 43-7 victory.

Part of that was perhaps due to the weather conditions. Also helping Apple Valley, which plays at Bloomington Jefferson on Saturday, was the presence of two-way standout Will Washington. Washington, a North Dakota State cornerback commit, has missed a few games at running back, specifically, this season due to injuries. But Tuesday, he tied a school record with five touchdowns — to go along with 212 yards — on the ground in just one half of work.

“It’s just a mindset of, ‘Hey, it’s going to be a wet game. Could be cold. If you want to win, you’ve got to be tougher than them,’ ” Apple Valley coach Pete Usset said. “For us, it’s really just back to fundamentals. And a big reason why we had so much success running the ball isn’t because we didn’t do anything different. It’s simply because we have a phenomenal player that better be all-state.”

But those games in which the running game is required are reserved for especially putrid weather. Friday, Fritze said, does not apply. Much of that, he noted, is because of the presence of turf fields across the metro, which makes wet fields far more playable.

“It’s going to be above freezing. The wind isn’t going to be anything ridiculous – 10 to 15 (mph) is something we’re used to. The direction will matter based on the quarter,” Fritze said. “And our QBs have to get out there pregame and understand how the wind is going to affect their ball, and they’re going to adjust, just like a kicker would do, just like a golfer would do. … And Anoka is going to do the same thing. I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal for either team.”

East Ridge features Zolnosky. Its opponent, the third-seeded Tornadoes, touts Peyton Podany, who is averaging 235 passing yards per game.

“Obviously, having a good quarterback is important if you’re going to throw it into the wind,” Anoka coach  Bo Wasurick said. “Because what I’ve seen in the past is some of the shorter passes are the hardest to deal with – the screens and all that stuff where it’ll sail it a little bit and make those ones hard to roll with.”

But, in general, he said some of his team’s best passing games over his career have come in wet conditions. Podany threw for 306 yards in wet conditions last week against Wayzata. When Wasurick was coaching at Jordan, Jonathan Draheim threw for 336 yards in a section final win over Glencoe-Silver Lake in the snow.

“We’re used to it, and like (this week), it’s raining in practice and we go out there,” Wasurick said. “Early on in my career, it could make an impact on the kids. But now we coach the ‘So what, now what?’ mentality so much that my kids joke all the time that weather is a mindset.”

The mindset that you have to run the ball to dominate games is changing across the sport. Wasurick noted Alabama coach Nick Saban himself noted the game is evolving toward the pass. Minnesota as a state is in the middle of that shift.

“I just don’t think everybody is used to it yet,” Wasurick said.

Of course, the best teams are often still run-heavy because they have more players and are simply bigger, faster and stronger than opponents.  But Usset said he has seen a number of spread offenses have success even in difficult conditions. He noted even if the weather isn’t good, the plays don’t change, but the formations out of which the Eagles run them might.

“We spread it out, but we’ve had some good games running the ball this year, we’ve had some good games throwing it,” Wasurick said. “The spread offense was originated to get people out of the box so you could run the ball easier with the best athlete on the field. Moving into the playoffs, that’s what our mentality is. Get the best player the ball in space, and let him work.”

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