Rob Reischel covers the Middleton football team for the News Publishing Company in Madison and has seen first hand the squad that rides into Oconomowoc on Friday looking for a win in Level 1 of the WIAA Division 1 playoffs. Oconomowoc (8-1) holds the No. 4 seed, and Middleton (7-2) is seeded No. 5.
Q: We’ve heard a lot about how Middleton players were suspended midseason, and that perhaps impacted the team’s loss to Madison LaFollette. How substantial were those suspensions, and how much impact has it had (or still has?) on the Middleton team?
A. Middleton played the La Follette game without starting wide receivers C.J. Fermanich and Myron Ashford, which severely slowed its passing game. Fermanich is also Middleton’s top cornerback, so it hurt on both sides of the ball.
Having said that, Middleton still should have won the game. It led, 12-0, in the final 4 minutes and hadn’t allowed a touchdown in nine-plus quarters. The Lancers scored twice down the stretch, though, and prevailed.
Middleton also played without several players in its last two games. But those contests were against Beloit Memorial and Madison East, both non-playoff teams, so those losses were hidden easier.
Middleton should be back to full strength Friday. And with a full and healthy squad, the Cardinals believe they can play with anyone. We’ll find out.
Q. Another frequent narrative (stirred up by me and others) is that the Big Eight has struggled against Classic 8/Milwaukee-area teams in years past. What have you seen from the Big Eight this year that suggests this year might be different … or not?
A. I think that narrative is extremely fair. The Big Eight has taken its lumps in recent years and has a ton to prove.
To be honest, I’m not convinced the Big Eight is any better in 2016 than recent seasons. Sun Prairie is the one exception, and I think they’ll emerge from this bracket and reach the state semifinals.
I think the other schools could get better results, as well, because Arrowhead is down and the other matchups are all relatively favorable for the Big Eight schools. But nothing has come easy for the Big Eight in recent years, so we’ll see.
Q. It's easy to notice the strong defensive numbers (11.8 points per game allowed) – who are the leaders on the Middleton D, what makes them effective and why did those things not work against Sun Prairie (a 37-31 loss).
Q. First off, the numbers against Sun Prairie are extremely skewed. Remember, that game went four overtimes and was tied, 17-17, at the end of the regulation.
Sun Prairie is loaded on both sides of the ball, and I think Middleton felt pretty good to hold it in check the first 48 minutes. Both sides completely wore out by the end of the fourth OT.
Middleton’s linebacking core is one of the top units in the state. Outside linebacker Joe Ludwig was the Big Eight’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 as a safety. Middle linebacker Caleb Cymbalak is a tackling machine, and junior Shane Bick might be the best of the bunch.
Ends Max Elliott and Nate Helbach can both fly off the edge, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge lift from nose tackle Harrison Bielski.
The secondary is suspect, which could be trouble against the No. 1 passing attack Middleton will have faced this year.
Q. Nobody jumps off the page in offensive numbers, but they seem to have a balance of contributions. How would you describe Middleton’s offense?
A. Power, power and more power.
There’s nothing fancy about it. It’s good old-fashioned, smash mouth football.
The offensive line, led by Wisconsin recruit Kayden Lyles, goes about 260 pounds per man. The guards can move, the tackles have nice feet, and Lyles will absolutely maul people at center.
Running back Dion Huff is above average and is approaching 1,000 yards. He’s small, though, and can’t carry the water all four quarters. So James Pabst — who’s actually similar in stature and skill to Huff — will get some work, too.
Middleton throws the ball just 30 percent of the time, and will do so even less Friday if it can get a lead. Junior quarterback Davis Roquet has been adequate. Ashford is the Cardinals’ top receiver but is extremely inconsistent.
Q. Bold prediction?
A. Middleton 38, Oconomowoc 34 — My guess is the Cardinals will control the ball about 30-32 minutes, wear down the Raccoons and win a shootout.
Rob Reischel has written eight books about the Green Bay Packers since 2006. His latest, co-authored with Packers play-by-play man Wayne Larrivee, is titled, "If These Walls Could Talk." For a signed copy of any of Reischel's books, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Rob (@robreischel) on Twitter for updates from Friday's contest between Middleton and Oconomowoc