Card football preview: Lumberjacks are Cards' homecoming foe
The stage is set for a dramatic afternoon at Citizens Field as the Alexandria football team welcomes a 3-1 Bemidji team to town to cap off homecoming week tomorrow.
The Cardinals have done everything they've been asked to do through four games. They have played the schedule in front of them and gotten out to a 4-0 start. But those four wins have come against opponents with a combined 4-12 record. Now they have a chance to make a statement against a tough Lumberjacks' team in what will be an emotional Saturday afternoon in front of a packed house.
The Lumberjacks come in with a bad taste in their mouths after a disheartening loss last week. They had plenty of opportunities in their own homecoming game against undefeated Brainerd before coming up short, 33-28.
Bemidji will offer the Alexandria defense its biggest test of the year. The Lumberjacks average almost 30 points a game behind a multidimensional offense. Mitchell Hendricks leads the way at quarterback. He put up 188 yards on 13-of-20 passing against the Warriors last week. He has weapons to work with on the outside in players like Ben Hengel and a strong running game behind him to keep defenses honest.
"I think their offense is pretty diverse," Cardinals head coach Mike Empting said. "They are able to run and throw the ball pretty well. They have a very good quarterback who is the key to their offense...I would say their strength is their ability to run and pass equally."
That plays into the strength of this Alexandria team. The Cardinals' defense has been dominant at times this season. They have allowed a total of seven points in their last three games and have created 15 turnovers along the way. Empting feels his players are ready to put their reputation on the line against an offense like the Lumberjacks.
"It's been a really good week of practice," he said. "I'm not sure if it's the perception of a better team than what we've seen coming in or if it's homecoming, but the guys have been on top of things this week...I think the guys recognize the great opportunity they have in front of them, both in terms of a good team coming in and it being homecoming in front of a great crowd. I look forward to it, and I think our team is going to really rise to the occasion."
The excitement of playing a quality team on homecoming only adds to the intrigue. It was a similar scenario last year when these two teams met on Alexandria's homecoming. Fans witnessed a 28-17 win for the Cardinals before both teams went on to make long playoff runs. This year, the combined 7-1 record of the two teams enhances the excitement as they get set to square off.
For the Cardinals, it offers another chance to improve against a good team. Their goal all season has been to get better every week and be playing their best football when they enter the playoffs. Even at 4-0, they know there is a long ways to go before they reach that point. They can take a big step with a win over the Lumberjacks.
"I look at the way our team has played and I think, 'we're 4-0 and that's as good as we can be,' " Empting said. "But I don't think we've played our best football yet. I think that is still ahead of us. [Bemidji] is probably the best team we've faced so far this season. All we can do is play them to the best of our ability and move forward from that. It's not so much about the opponent, it's about us getting better every week."
The Cardinals have been able to do that for the most part. Empting knows if his offense can continue sustaining drives, it will keep his defense fresh. That will allow the Cardinals to be aggressive in forcing the turnovers that have benefited them so much through their first four games.
Winning that turnover battle and playing well on special teams could determine who wins this game. That's what it usually comes down to when two good teams square off.
"I think given the circumstances, the crowd deserves to see a great football game," Empting said. "I just think the whole thing is going to be fun. [Homecoming] is turning into a great community event. It's more than just the school, it's a community event, and I think they're going to be treated to a good football game."