On the eve of MEA weekend, the fourth-ranked Eden Prairie Eagles made their case in the town on the St. Croix. To be considered for a No. 1 seed in the section playoffs, the Eagles needed a resounding win over third-ranked Stillwater in the regular season finale Wednesday night.
They assembled a very convincing argument for themselves with a 35-24 dismantling of the previously undefeated Ponies. The Eagles now await their fate when the section pairings are announced on Friday. But before the Minnesota State High School League unveils its sectional brackets, football coaches are provided the opportunity to lobby for their respective teams.
“I make the case that our QRF will be way ahead based on the teams we’ve played.” Eagles head coach Mike Grant said, referring to the Quality Results Formula or QRF, an analytics equation used to compare teams and determine rankings.
“We played the top two teams from this side,” Grant continued. “We played East Ridge and beat them 41-14 and beat the other top team (Stillwater) 35-14. We think we’re the best team.”
If any members of the pairings committee were watching at Pony Stadium, they saw plenty of evidence to render a favorable judgment for the Eagles, who shut down Stillwater’s spread offense and quarterback Max Shikenjanski. The Eden Prairie defense held the Ponies to 113 yards passing and just 38 yards rushing.
“It was a dogfight,” said senior defensive end Will Schreiber, whose first-half sack – along with another from tackle Matthew McFadden in the second half – helped ignite the defense. “It was fun to battle against those guys. They’re good.”
The Eagles set the tone on the first series of the game. Senior defensive back Cade Hutchison snagged his second interception in as many games, jumping a Stillwater route for the takeaway and giving the Eagles the ball on the Stillwater 45-yard-line.
The offense capitalized immediately as junior running back Liam Berndt broke loose for 24 yards to the Ponies’ 21-yard-line. Quarterback Nick Fazi scrambled to convert on 4th down, giving the Eagles first and goal at the 5-yard-line and setting up senior running back Tyler Walden’s first of four touchdowns.
Walden, who simply refused to go down after taking hits from Stillwater defenders, led all rushers with 121 yards on 21 carries. Running back Terae Dunn picked up 75 yards on eight carries, while Berndt rushed for 52 yards on 12 carries.
All totaled, the Eagles generated 314 yards rushing on 55 carries and 24 first downs.
“It felt great,” Walden said. “The offensive line did a great job. They opened up the holes and our defense did a great job of shutting them down tonight.”
Much of the production in the running game came in the second half, as Fazi left the game with a PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) strain in his knee just before halftime.
Grant indicated after the game that Fazi could have possibly remained in the contest but was taken out as a precaution. The senior QB is expected to return for the section playoffs. Senior tackle Andrew Kaiser also left the game with a leg injury.
Junior David Ivey replaced Fazi and guided the offense in the second half, leading the Eagles on three scoring drives, all for touchdowns.
“David Ivey stepped up and did a great job managing our team,” Grant said. “I thought he was fantastic at quarterback.”
Ivey used his feet to keep the offense moving, rushing three times for 22 yards as the Eagles’ offense monopolized the time of possession in the second half.
Eden Prairie built on their 14-7 halftime lead by controlling the ball and the clock. The three rushing touchdowns in the second half, capped off by Devin Jordan’s 5-yard score with 5:52 left in the fourth quarter, gave the Eagles a 35-7 lead and put the game out of reach.
“It’s a good team win,” Ivey said. “The guys really helped me to feel comfortable coming in as a backup QB.”
Asked if he felt the pressure of the moment in replacing Fazi, Ivey said, “I was nervous, but I know I had great guys around me to help me out.”
Eden Prairie has dominated both Edina and Stillwater by wide margins after their loss to Shakopee two weeks ago. And ahead of the section playoffs, the Eagles might be playing their best football of the season.
After the game, Grant spoke to his team with a noticeable smile on his face, telling the group he was “very proud” of the way they played. The coach assured his players if they continue to play at this level – they can beat anyone in the state.
“When we can play with a little swagger like that, I think it’s a good thing,” Schreiber said. “It’s just fun, it’s great to play with these guys, a bunch of brothers on this team. It’s just a great time.”
The Eagles finish their regular season at 6-2 and are assured of at least a two-seed in the section playoffs. Style points were needed against Stillwater – and the Eagles delivered a strong closing argument for the top spot.
“I thought our backs ran hard tonight,” Grant said. “Defensively, for a team (like Stillwater) that’s averaging 35-40 points a game, we played well. We played the A-game tonight.”
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