Dominic Cizauskas simply took it away.
Madison La Follette quarterback Jordan Carlson had a surefire touchdown as he scrambled toward the end zone with 6 minutes left in the first half. With Mukwonago nursing a 6-0 lead, it appeared La Follette had taken control of the game, but even though Carlson got across the goal line, the football never made it that far. It was all part of a sound 25-0 win for Mukwonago in the first round of the WIAA Division 1 playoffs at La Follette (7-3), an upset on paper that marked Mukwonago's first playoff win since 2006.
Cizauskas, the All-State caliber linebacker destined for the University of Wisconsin, came in from the right and seized the football as Carlson tried rushing in from 6 yards out, giving Mukwonago the ball at its own 1-yard line. It was the first of two first-half takeaways inside the 5-yard line. Matt Hartung's interception in the end zone halted a La Follette scoring opportunity in the final seconds of the half.
"Two plays where we were able to get takeaways down by the goal line (stand out)," Mukwonago coach Clay Iverson said. "Those two plays stick out in my mind; you've got to make those plays this time of year."
First MHS took away the football, then it took away the momentum. Scoring proved easier to come by in the second half as the Indians pulled away.
It was the second straight year Mukwonago had traveled as the fifth seed to Madison, one year after an injury-depleted Indians squad fell to Madison West in Level 1, 22-7. This time around, a win meant the Indians (7-3) would get to host a second-round game against La Follette's Big 8 Conference foe Sun Prairie (10-0), a returning state finalist in the conversation for the state's best team.
"Last year we still believe we were the better team and should have had that game," said MHS quarterback Aaron Nixon, who ran for two scores and threw for another. "We had some injuries, but we can't use that as an excuse. We just didn't execute and had a bunch of turnovers. This year, we made it a goal to not turn the ball over and have the defense get turnovers."
Mukwonago met its goal, taking the ball away three times in all (a Nate Essman interception came late) and not once giving it away.
Mukwonago's first drive of the second half navigated 68 yards over 12 time-consuming plays, capped when Nixon scored his second touchdown of the game on a tackle-breaking 21-yard run.
On the next drive, Nixon found Alex Straszewski wide open along the sideline for a 38-yard touchdown connection.
"We knew that he was playing man inside, and we knew if the receiver took him to the middle, we'd have a guy wide open on the wheel route," Nixon said.
Jerrid Madden capped a 99-yard rushing performance with an 8-yard touchdown.
"Jerrid's a great kid, and we told him to stay in the crease and do what we can do," Iverson said. "He did a great job being a team player. In this offense, he could touch it 10 times, he could touch it 15, he could touch it 25, he could touch it two. When he's called on – and you can say this about this whole group – when they're called on, they do the job. To advance to the round of 16 is exciting."
Following the highlight-reel play by Cizauskas, Mukwonago turned to its senior bulldozer again on a 4th and 1 play from its own 10. With a fierce wind blowing toward Mukwonago, Cizauskas collected the necessary yards, one of two occasions on which Mukwonago elected to go for a short fourth down carry on its own end with the wind working against it.
"We figured we wouldn't gain much (if we kicked)," Iverson said. "Part of that is respect of La Follette. We knew what they had on offense, and we figured our best defense was probably watching those guys standing on the sideline. We had to make some decisions. They were thought-out decisions, they weren't spur-of-the-moment."
On a 4th down from Mukwonago's own 40 early in the third quarter, Madden reached out for the necessary 2 yards, and the drive culminated in Nixon's scamper to give Mukwonago a 12-0 lead.
La Follette had another chance to score shortly before half, with a 4th and 12 conversion on the MHS 25 part of a frenzied final drive in the first half that put the Lancers on the 4-yard line with 15 seconds left. But after a spike a dropped pass in the end zone, Hartung came up with an easy interception for a touchback to thwart a second consecutive LaFollette drive inside the 5.
"We were in man coverage because our coach really trusts us," Hartung said. "I got some help from our inside linebacker Dave Maneage, really collisioned the inside route and allowed me the chance to get that pick. Through the whole half, we were basically trying to do everything we could get the win."
LaFollette out-gained Mukwonago in the first half, 181-143, but had no points to show for it. In the second half, the Indians owned the yardage battle, 238-49.
"We were very confident," Nixon said. "We thought we were much more physical and we were going to run right at them the whole game. We knew we were bigger and stronger than them."
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