Clear skies, low humidity and temperatures in the mid-70s at kickoff created an idyllic setting Thursday night at Aerie Stadium in Eden Prairie.
The conditions for a football opener against Buffalo could not have been better.
And after rolling to a 48-7 victory to kick off the 2023 campaign, one might conclude Mike Grant’s Eagles, ranked No. 1 in the Star Tribune Metro Top 10, could not have looked better.
Or could they?
“You’re never as good as you think you are or as bad as you thought you were,” Grant said. “So even though we won big, you’re not that good. You end up making a lot of mistakes. So we will keep improving as we go through the season.”
It’s a long season, and while there’s always room for improvement, it could feel a bit crowded in the “betterment” department after Thursday’s dismantling of the Bison.
The Eagles scored touchdowns on their first five possessions of the first half. Their sixth possession ended as the first half drew to a close.
“We played hard. In a first game, you always make mistakes,” Grant said. “I think our offensive line played very well. Our backs ran hard.”
After the Eagles defense stopped Buffalo on the first series of the game, Eden Prairie wasted no time getting on the scoreboard, running just five plays in 1:42 and driving 48 yards to the end zone. Senior running back Hawken Hedlund scored the first of his two touchdowns from 24 yards out.
Luca Ratkovich kicked the first of his six extra points for a 7-0 Eden Prairie lead.
Hedlund said the Eagles’ versatile and experienced offensive line made all the difference in the running game.
“They’re all great leaders and they all kind of play off each other,” Hedlund said. “They’re kind of switching around positions a lot on different plays. And they all understand their role, so they get the job done. And they do it really well.”
The Eagles rolled off two more scores, both coming compliments of running back Jeremy Fredericks. The junior capped off a 3-play, 26-yard drive with a 2-yard run and a 14-0 Eden Prairie lead with 6:45 left in the first quarter.
On the next drive, senior quarterback David Ivey found Fredericks on a 20-yard scoring strike to put the finishing touches on a 4-play, 58-yard drive.
The first quarter ended with the Eagles in full command with a 21-0 lead.
“I think this game was a great start to the season and just shows us what we can do,” Hedlund said.
Hedlund led all rushers with 113 yards on 13 carries. Junior running back Elijah Rumph added 70 yards on nine carries.
Buffalo scored their first and only touchdown early in the second quarter. The Eagles responded by taking their own sweet time on their next offensive series.
Eden Prairie burned 5:36 off the clock with 13 plays covering 76 yards. Ivey found senior defensive tackle Dennis Rahouski, doing double-time on offense, with a 17-yard pass and a 28-7 Eagles lead.
“I’ve been playing tight end since sophomore year on varsity and this is my first reception, first touchdown, so that’s exciting,” Rahouski said. “It’s kind of a joke on the team that I never got a reception, so put that to sleep now.”
This game was no joke. Hedlund closed out the first half with a short plunge for a touchdown, as Eden Prairie took a 35-7 lead into halftime.
“We drove down the field to the 2-yard line,” Hedlund said. “And we just got a little push on the inside for a nice little 2-yard run.”
The Eagles generated 400 yards of total offense with 323 on the ground, as Ivey completed two of five passes for 37 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, the Eagles were without the services of standout senior defensive tackle Mo Saine, who was out with a hamstring injury. Saine said he expects to be in the lineup for next week’s game with Edina.
The Eden Prairie defense yielded 277 yards to the Bison, including 18 first downs.
“We gave up a little yardage on defense, but all things that are fixable,” Grant said. “Like I said, we played hard. You can’t ask for more in the first game.”
Junior defensive back Max Kukla led the Eden Prairie defense with six tackles, senior co-captain Shaun Peterson added four and six players registered three tackles each, including junior Logan Bosch, who had two tackles for loss.
“All the guys tried really hard out there,” Rahouski said. “We’ve been working for this the whole offseason. So we all knew what we had to do. And we had to put it all out there.”
Eden Prairie closed out the scoring with Ivey’s 8-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and junior Luther Thompson’s 40-yard pass to sophomore tight end Braden Minta in the fourth quarter.
The defense finished strong, holding Buffalo to 115 total yards in the second half.
“The DBs played great, the D-line played great, the linebackers played great. But we could do better? Yeah,” Rahouski admitted. “We still got some stuff incorrect. But we’re gonna be really good.”
After the Eagles opened the new season with a resounding win on their home turf, they will host Edina on Friday night, with the kickoff set for 7 p.m.
“Edina runs a very similar offense to Buffalo,” Grant said. “So that’s a good thing.”
Editor’s note: EPLN photographer Rick Olson contributed to this story.
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