North faces Shakopee in Class 6A quarterfinals

The 2018 state Class 6A football champions would like to remind everybody they’re still in the running for the 2019 title.

Lakeville North is doing that by relying on some of the same things last year’s team did successfully – run the ball to wear down opposing defenses, and rattle other teams’ offenses with relentless pursuit.

In their 33-7 victory over Blaine in the second round of the playoffs last Friday, the Panthers’ Logan Freeburg rushed for 255 yards and outgained the Bengals by himself. The North defense held Blaine to 196 yards, including just 45 on the ground, and had four sacks.

That combination typically leads to playoff success, and the Panthers have reached the state quarterfinal round for the ninth year in a row. They will play Shakopee at 7 p.m. Thursday at Stillwater High School, with the winner advancing to face Rosemount or Champlin Park in the Class 6A semifinals Nov. 14 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Lakeville North (9-1) rushed for 338 yards against Blaine. Freeburg gained 11.6 yards per carry and scored twice. Quarterback RaJa Nelson rushed for 77 yards and two scores, and threw a 12-yard pass to Reed Smith for the Panthers’ final touchdown.

There are differences in offensive personnel – for instance, Nelson played mostly receiver and running back last year, but rarely quarterback – but the objectives are the same.

“We’re not as big, but we have speed,” junior offensive lineman Joe Grillo said. “Now we run more outside to change things up. It’s a different dynamic, but we still try to be successful running the ball.”

The 255 yards against Blaine are a career high for Freeburg, a junior with 1,277 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.

Nelson has 863 yards rushing and 826 passing. He’s rushed for 14 scores and thrown for 11.

Blaine is the seventh opponent Lakeville North held to seven points or fewer. The North defensive blueprint is familiar – shut down the run, then get after the quarterback.

That plays into the hands of somebody like senior defensive end Landon Carter, who had eight tackles and 1.5 sacks against Blaine.

“With the game plan our coaches set up, it’s almost like all we have to do is just follow through,” Carter said. “They make it easy for us. Every week has been a good game plan.

“For me, coming off the edges (to rush the quarterback) is the funnest thing in the world. But we have a responsibility to stop the run first. That’s the major priority.”

“Our D-line and linebackers are fast, strong, mean, aggressive guys,” said Keaton Mohs, a senior wide receiver and defensive back. “I’d hate to be a running back going against them.”

Shakopee is 5-5 overall after defeating Farmington 22-21 and Totino-Grace 21-6 in its first two playoff games. In the regular season the Sabers lost by one touchdown to No. 1-ranked Wayzata and 2018 state runner-up Eden Prairie. The Panthers say they are not overlooking Shakopee.

“They have a young O-line, a decently athletic quarterback and a good running back,” Carter said. “They’re built as a power team, but they’re also fast. They run the ball 90 percent of the time and you get a lot of trickery from them, too.”

Lakeville North is one of three teams from the Metro South subdistrict to reach the final eight of the Class 6A playoffs, Lakeville South and Rosemount being the others. Shakopee played in the Metro West subdistrict but is the fourth South Suburban Conference school to reach the quarterfinals.

“Shakopee has battled in some close games and found a way to win them recently,” Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen said. “We’re preparing for a very good football team. When get to this place you find out how good all the other teams were and how much they were tested. I think Shakopee was tested plenty. They play a tough brand of football. I hope we were tested enough. I think we were.”

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