Letting Dahl loose is not an option

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 12, 2002

Mankato East may not be the same team it was a year ago, but that does not allow Austin any leeway

The Packer football team (0-2) travels to Mankato Friday night for a 7 p.m. meeting with the 1-1 Cougars, who last year finished the Big Nine Conference season undefeated (8-0) on their way to the finals of the Class AAAA state tournament. Despite noticeable losses to graduation, and a Week One defeat at the hands of Rochester Mayo, Mankato East is still one of the teams to beat.

"In the Big Nine, no team that you play is going to be an easy team or a patsy," said Austin coach Steve Knox. "Every night it's going to be a dogfight. We know with Mankato East it's not going to be any different."

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The Cougars rolled to a 40-7 victory in last year's regular-season meeting in Austin, fueled by All-Conference quarterback Craig Dahl and his touchdown runs of 40 and 45 yards. Dahl had 121 of East's 337 rushing yards, which accounted for all of the Cougars offense. Dahl was 0-for-2 passing in last season's meeting.

"It's not just him, they've got a number of kids who complement him," Coach Knox said of Dahl. "He is a big threat, but he's got other individuals there to keep you honest. In the past he's proven that he can be a definite strong point."

The Packers have practiced playing assignment defense all week long, isolating individual defenders to assume a role in stopping Mankato East's fluid option offense. Dahl is flanked in the backfield by Nick Heminover, who carried five times for 105 yards in the Cougars' loss to Mayo earlier this season.

"If each person does their given assignment, we can be in good shape," Coach Knox expressed.

Austin's offense will need to be able to answer the call of Dahl and the rest of East's explosive offense. The Packers have scored 14 and seven points in consecutive games to start the season, none of which came in the second half.

"That's not a major concern at this point. The main thing for us is we need to put points on the board whenever we can," Coach Knox said. "We're doing everything in our power to do that, we've given ourselves opportunities, but we just haven't capitalized.

Austin lost three fumbles in a season-opening 19-14 loss at Faribault, and three more turnovers helped secure Mayo's 34-7 win over the Pack last Friday. Austin is minus-4 in turnover margin thusfar, not to mention two blocked punts returned for touchdowns by Mayo.

"There were several big plays for Mayo that gave them touchdowns in every situation," Knox said. "We've worked a little bit (this week) on our special teams, and protecting the ball. We've also been preparing ourselves for the option they run.

"We know we have to play a great game to beat them."

Mankato East used the option effectively in last week's 21-14 win over Owatonna, who has also been tabbed by Big Nine coaches as a team to watch. Dahl was limited to 38 yards by Mayo's defense, but his abilities are not about to be forgotten.

"First of all we have to win the line of scrimmage," Knox said. "We have to keep them from any big, quick scoring plays, and we need to put some points on the board.

"Defensively we need to stop the option, our special teams need to put points on the board, and offensively we've got to be able to score more than 14 points."

Depth chart

The Packers continue to test a pair of quarterbacks in Tucker Schieck and Mark Cavanaugh. Schieck got more playing time in last week's loss as Austin went to the air to try and cover ground on a healthy deficit. Cavanaugh has added significant playing time in the Packers' defensive backfield as safety, but Coach Knox is awaiting a standout at signal-caller.

"We're still trying to find out which one is going to step up and develop into a leader for us," Knox said.

The Packers' bout with turnovers in the early going has Coach Knox anticipating a more reserved offense with a minimized -- but not minimal -- passing attack.

"We found out (last week) that some of the things that we're capable of doing (offensively) are potentially there," Knox said. "We're learning that our type of football team is going to be one that runs the ball, and we'll try to mix in the pass as we go along.

"Each week we're learning a lot about the team we have. As long as we can make improvements continually, sooner or later the wins will start coming … hopefully sooner."

Matt Day emerged as an amiable substitute in Austin's defensive line, and Andy Swank made a strong showing at safety as the Packers continue to search for depth at every position. But with a roster of 32, depth is not often an option.

"I think we're both in the same boat in the sense that we're going to try to have as many of our best individuals on the field as we can," Knox said comparatively between East and his team.

"Fortunately for us all of ours are very hard-working individuals who want to get better."

Call Ross Thede at 434-2234 or e-mail him at :mailto:sports@austindailyherald.com.