LODI — Dave Puls wasn’t sure if his defense needed to calm down or wake up.
Watertown Luther Prep had just taken the opening drive of Friday’s Capitol North Conference football opener down the field and was sitting with first-and-goal at the Lodi 10-yard line.
Four plays later from the 8, Lodi senior linebacker Kenan Cunningham shot the A-gap to put Luther Prep quarterback Cole Burow on his heels, leading to a sack and a turnover on downs.
“I think they all just kind of needed to be like, ‘Wait a minute, we’re in a football game here,’” said Puls, Lodi’s coach. “’We’ve got to get our eyes open and wake up.’”
The Blue Devils, the No. 1-ranked team in The Associated Press’ medium-school state rankings, woke up in a hurry.
Lodi (5-0, 1-0 Capitol North) reeled off 34 straight points to roll to a 34-14 win over Luther Prep on Friday.
But it was the fourth-down stop that effectively set the tone for the Lodi defense. Luther Prep (3-2, 0-1) totaled 48 yards of offense on that opening drive. The rest of the way? Lodi’s first-string defense allowed Prep’s first-string offense just 6 more yards, one more first down and forced two turnovers before the backups entered for both teams early in the fourth quarter and Lodi leading 34-0.
Cunningham said he saw the guard crash down on the tackle, saw a gap and ran it. And he wouldn’t take complete credit that the stop set the tone for the entire game.
“But I think it contributed quite a bit, to stop them on that first drive,” Cunningham said.
Luther Prep coach Justin Gregorius certainly agreed the stop was pivotal. On the road, with some confidence and early momentum, the Phoenix were trying to take control with a big early score.
“It gave Lodi confidence,” Gregorious said of the stop. “They don’t need any more confidence.”
Even for a team that graduated 27 seniors from last year’s WIAA Division 4 state champs, the Lodi defense has been playing with an edge this year. Through five games, the Blue Devils have forced 14 total turnovers and scored nearly as many touchdowns (three) as they’ve surrendered (four).
Luther Prep still finished with only 163 yards of total offense, as the Phoenix added two late touchdowns.
Cunningham said defensive coordinator Rick Mack preaches aggressiveness.
“We’re always straight downhill, looking for the guy with the ball and staying home,” Cunningham said.” We have assignments and we have to stay home to those assignments. And if we don’t, we don’t play.”
As for Lodi and its repeat hopes, Puls said they’ve talked a lot about about being the team with the target on its back this season. But that pressure is good, and the result of the hard work the current team has also invested.
So, Puls said, last year is last year and this year is this year.
“These 10 seniors have kind of been in the shadow of those 27 seniors from last year for a long time,” Puls said. “So this is their year to shine and this is their year to make this their own.”
So what does that entail?
“We want to be there again,” Cunningham, one of those 10 seniors, said of returning to the state final. “No one’s expecting us to get there again, so we want to prove everyone wrong.
“We want to replicate what those guys did. They’re our idols basically. They carried us to that. Some of us played, some of us didn’t. The guys that didn’t, we’re ready to play.”
Watertown Luther Prep 0 0 0 14 — 14
Lodi 0 21 13 0 — 34
L — Soehle 3 run (Soehle kick)
L — Nicolay 32 run (Soehle kick)
L — Potter 1 run (Soehle kick)
L — Soehle 2 run (Soehle kick)
L — Nicolay 10 run (kick failed)
WLP — Schulz 36 run (Solobiyov made)
WLP — Bauman 15 pass from Lawrenz (Solobiyov made)
First downs — WLP 8, L 9. Rushing (Att.-Yds.) — WLP 29-106, L 39-152. Passing yards — WLP 58, L 103. Passes (Comp.-Att.-Int.) — WLP 6-12-1, L 5-6-1. Fumbles-lost — WLP 1-1, L 2-0. Penalties-yards — WLP 2-10, L 3-35.
Rushing: WLP, Schulz 7-86. L, Nicolay 11-98.
Passing: WLP, Burow 5-10-1-43. L, Potter 5-6-1-103.
Receiving: WLP, Guse 3-39. L, Rashid 2-35.