Adjusting on the fly: Cardinals keep scoring despite injuries
It took just one week to get an idea of how explosive the passing game for the Alexandria football team could be again this season.
The Cardinals beat now 5-1 Andover 34-28 in the opener on Sept. 1 and threw for 438 yards in the process. Senior Cody Faber, the program's new career leader in pass receptions after his four catches against Bemidji last Friday, torched the Huskies for 204 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches that night. Senior Thomas Anderson added six catches, a score and 102 yards.
Faber was all over the field against Andover. He caught passes on routes that got him in space so he could use his elusiveness to break free. That was the ideal plan for Alexandria all season.
"We like to throw him bubble, get him on those intermediate routes where he can maybe be matched up on a linebacker where he's got a great speed advantage," Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said.
Fellow senior captain Chandler Cole was set to be the primary ball carrier in the backfield this fall, but injuries have prevented that plan from coming to fruition. Cole tore his ACL last season and worked hard to get back by the opener, scoring the game-winning touchdown against the Huskies that night. But in Week Two, he injured his knee again at Sartell.
Cole returned against Bemidji last week, scoring a 14-yard rushing touchdown in the second half and gaining 75 yards on six touches. But late in the game, he was tackled from behind and had his knee wrapped in ice on the sidelines after leaving the field for the remainder of the night. Empting wasn't sure how long the latest injury might sideline him.
"It took a lot for Chandler to get back the first time he got hurt against Sartell," he said. "I know Chandler works hard and is doing everything he can to get himself ready. If that means he's ready by playoffs, or if that means he's ready for his wrestling season, I don't know."
Cole's injury has not only changed the ground game, but forced Alexandria to adjust in the passing game too. Faber has moved into the backfield as one of the primary runners for the Cardinals. That has limited some of his opportunities to catch the ball in space and use his athleticism to beat guys in one-on-one situations.
"Russ Hinrichs, our offensive coordinator, has done a great job of getting him the ball in different ways, but it just creates more of a challenge for us offensively," Empting said. "It's easier to do when he lines up at the slot. At running back, he's going to get the ball in traffic."
Each week, Alexandria seems to be adjusting to this new look. The Cardinals are still scoring a North Central (Red) District best 36.3 points per night. In the last two weeks, they have racked up 95 in wins over St. Cloud Tech (4-2) and Bemidji (2-4).
Guys have stepped up to help the Cardinals rebound from two straight losses in weeks three and four. Anderson had eight catches in the win over St. Cloud Tech on Sept. 30.
"Cody has been an unbelieveable receiver whenever he's out there, so teams usually hone in on him," Anderson said after the win against Bemidji. "In the backfield, I don't think they look out there as much. I was the senior out there, so I kind of knew it was my job to step up. My turn to start getting some receptions."
Bryce Ludwig is a senior tight end who provides another sure-handed option for senior quarterback Michael Empting. Behind those seniors in the passing game is a group of underclassmen who have stepped up. Junior Josh Wegner has made big scoring plays, including touchdowns against Brainerd, St. Cloud Tech and Bemidji.
Sophomore Cody Branson caught eight balls for 119 yards and a touchdown in two games against Sartell and Brainerd. In total, seven different guys had a catch against the Warriors and five different receivers had catches against the Sabres and St. Cloud Tech.
"Injuries actually have allowed us to develop even more depth," coach Empting said. "At one point or another, we've had various different receivers out with injuries. Running backs out with injuries, which has caused us to shift guys around. It's provided more playing opportunities. We have a whole bunch of guys we can run out there, which is great."
The only time Alexandria has struggled to move the ball was against a now 6-0 Rocori team that is led by a talented secondary on defense.
"Other than that, our receivers have done a great job of getting open," Empting said. "We're completing somewhere around 65 percent of our passes, which is a pretty great number. That means guys are getting open, catching the ball and making some difficult receptions too. Michael has been able to find receivers, and our line is doing a great job protecting him."
The running game continues to make this a well-balanced offense, as well.
In the last two weeks, the Cardinals have run for 368 yards against Bemidji and 258 yards against the Tigers. It all adds up to another impressive offense for a Cardinals team that is gaining steam heading toward the playoffs.