The best of the Big Rivers Conference (Menomonie) and the best of the Middle Border Conference (New Richmond) clashed in the second round of the WIAA Division 3 Level 2 playoffs on Friday.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, they were worn down by Menomonie’s multi-faceted squad, losing to the Mustangs 35-13 at UW-Stout in Menomonie. The Tigers end the season with an 8-3 record. Menomonie moves on to Level 3, where the Mustangs will host Medford next Friday.
The defenses ruled the first quarter of the game, taking advantage of offensive miscues on both sides. The start of the game couldn’t have been worse for the Tigers, fumbling the ball away on the first play from scrimmage in the game. That turnover didn’t hurt, because Menomonie fumbled the ball back to the Tigers a few plays later.
There were times the Tigers were able to sustain drives, but few of the drives bore results. The next Tiger possession carried inside the Menomonie 30, but an interception stopped that march.
The first quarter ended scoreless, but with Menomonie driving. That drive carried well into the second quarter, with Menomonie getting the game’s opening score on an eight-yard pass with 7:43 remaining.
The lead would double moments later. Menomonie linebacker Thomas Poplawski made a perfect read on a short Tiger pass play. He cut in front of the receiver and carried the interception 35 yards for the touchdown.
The Tigers didn’t threaten again in the first half, but Menomonie did. It took a leaping interception by Tiger safety Joey Kidder in the end zone on the final play of the half to end that threat.
Menomonie opened the second half with another scoring threat, but the Mustangs’ field goal attempt fell short.
The Tigers then saw their first offensive success. Menomonie was primarily playing a zone pass coverage. Tiger receiver Caleb Eastep got behind the Menomonie coverage and quarterback Tim Salmon found him for an 80-yard touchdown pass.
Menomonie then steered its offense to more of a ball-control style, using up large chunks of time on drives. The Mustangs scored two minutes into the fourth quarter, finishing the drive with a 24-yard pass that made the score 28-7.
The next Tiger drive ended with another interception. After the Tigers forced a punt, they put together their best sustained drive of the night. Salmon and Kidder connected on three passes for 49 yards in the drive. The touchdown came on a six-yard pass from Salmon to Joe Powers, who circled out of the backfield unguarded.
Menomonie finished the scoring with a 41-yard run in the final minutes.
Salmon had a busy night passing, completing 24 of 38 attempts for 289 yards. Kidder and Nolan Eckert both finished with seven receptions. Because the Tigers trailed early, they weren’t able to significantly establish the running game. Powers was the leading rusher with 33 yards on eight carries.
With the Tigers scheduled to join the BRC, there was plenty of buildup leading into this game. Tiger coach Reggie Larson said the coaching staff talked about not getting caught up in the Menomonie mystique, because the Mustangs have been such a successful program for several decades.
“You won’t convince me they’re a better team and you won’t convince my kids either,” Larson said. Larson said Menomonie broke out numerous new looks in this game, which was a sign that the Mustangs’ respected the Tigers’ abilities.
Facing Menomonie takes a great deal of discipline because the Mustangs have several players shift in the moments before each snap. The Tigers adjusted to those shifts well, not having any players caught out of position because of them.
The Tiger offensive line took a hit in the first possession of the game when starting tackle Fred Riba was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury. Larson said the line did well in adjusting, with Dominic LaDuke stepping into Riba’s role.
Larson said he could see Menomonie going deep into this year’s playoffs.
“They’ll be a tough out for anyone,” he said.