Marshall senior quarterback Craig Ward (7) lines up under center against River Valley Friday, Oct. 22. The Cardinals went on to beat the Blackhawks, 14-12, to advance to Level 2 of the WIAA Division 5 playoffs.

Coming into Level 1 of the Division 5 Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) playoffs Friday, Oct. 22, Marshall head coach Matt Kleinheinz knew his No. 1 seeded Cardinals were facing a team far better than their No. 8 seeding would suggest in River Valley.

“They’re not your average eight seed,” Kleinheinz said. “They played half of their season without number 9 (senior running back and linebacker Zach Gloudeman) who has multiple division one offers and a preferred walk-on offer from the (Wisconsin) Badgers. They were 4-1 with him and 1-3 without him. They’re a really good football team.”

Friday night, the Blackhawks had number nine. River Valley gave Marshall just about all it could handle. Still, the Cardinals made plays when they had to and escaped with a 14-12 victory to advance.

Marshall typically dials up a pretty potent offensive attack, so it may be a bit surprising to see such little output from that side of the ball. River Valley had answers on defense. Outside of Gloudeman, the rest of the Blackhawks earned Kleinheinz’s respect.

“They’re a really good combination of speed and strength on defense,” Kleinheinz said. “They were shooting gaps. They used their strength to really challenge us to run to the outside, but they’re fast too. They have some dudes.”

Those dudes were able to keep the Cardinals at bay when it mattered most, stymieing potential scoring opportunities all night. On the first possession of the game, the Blackhawks forced a turnover on downs from the River Valley 13 yard line. Marshall would give the ball up in River Valley territory via turnover on downs twice more before the end of the first half.

While Marshall floundered, the River Valley struck. Just three minutes into the game, running back Landon Clary found a crease in the Marshall defense and rumbled 58 yards to the house. After an unsuccessful extra point, the Blawkhawks led 6-0.

On the ensuing possession, the Cardinals had their one bright spot offensively in the first half. Senior running back Bryce Frank ripped off a huge 45-yard run to get the ball down to the River Valley 21 yard line. There would be no shortcomings on fourth down this time as sophomore Matt Motl bullied his way into the endzone a few plays later from five yards out. McKynzee Schaap nailed the extra point to give Marshall a 7-6 lead.

While River Valley’s defense gave Marshall fits, the Cardinals certainly didn’t make things easy on the Blackhawks’ offense, either. Late in the first half with River Valley driving, a hard hit popped the ball out, which was recovered by junior linebacker Eric Ayala. This wasn’t the last time the Cardinals’ defense would save the day.

Before the defense would shine again, special teams produced the play of the game. River Valley had marched all the way down to the Marshall two yard line, but the drive stalled out. The Blackhawks sent on the field goal unit to reclaim the lead.

Instead, big Taylor Michalak got a paw on the kick and knocked it to the grass. Cardinals and Blackhawks alike didn’t have the presence of mind to pick up the live football. Everyone, that is, except Frank. He scooped up the ball and carried it 94 yards for a Marshall touchdown. Schepp made the extra point to give Marshall a 14-6 lead as the fourth quarter quickly approached.

It took River Valley a little time to get the offense cooking again. Once they did, though, things looked dire for Marshall.

Clary ripped off a huge run to flip the field for the Blackhawks and set them up at the Marshall five yard line. A few plays later, Clary was the lead blocker as quarterback Ethan Wickman took the snap and rushed in a score from two yards out. Of course, the Blackhawks would line up to attempt a 2-point conversion as they trailed, 14-12.

River Valley opted for a simple dive up the gut. Senior Mason Collins was there immediately, wrapping up near the running backs’ ankles. A flock of other Cardinals swarmed on the ballcarrier, bringing him down and preventing the tie. But, there was still nine minutes left in the game.

Marshall did what it could to burn clock. Some butterfingers from its receivers didn’t help as the drive eventually stalled out. Frank sailed a beautiful punt into the endzone to start the Blackhawks’ possession at the 20.

River Valley was driving once again, until Frank put a stop to it. On 3rd & 8, Wickman was out of the pocket and scrambling for a first down. Only Frank stood in his way. Wickman juked and shimmied but couldn’t evade Frank as he wrapped up a textbook form tackle. The Blackhawks were forced to go for it on fourth down.

Wickman took the snap, faked a handoff, and rolled to his right. Marshall’s defensive backs did their job, blanketing River Valley’s receivers. Wickman tucked it and made a push for the sticks. This time, it was Motl who was the savior. He slipped a block and made a beeline for the sideline. He wrapped Wickman up and dragged him out of bounds short of the yard to gain. Marshall ball.

With three minutes left to play, the Cardinals just couldn’t get out of their own way. A chop block call and some terrible blocking on third down brought up another punting situation. Frank booted it out of bounds at the River Valley 23 with a minute to play.

Motl made his presence felt again, cleaning up a sack early in the possession as River Valley tried desperately to move the ball down the field. Frank leaped up to two passes during the possession, including the fourth down pass to win the game.

The Cardinals’ offense came out one last time, to line up in victory formation and take a knee. It was no small task, but the Cardinals had survived.

Frank led the way in rushing with 17 carries for 112 yards. After battling some ankle issues during the regular season, it looks like he is getting back to his old self at the perfect time.

The win earns Marshall a date with Belleville in Level 2. The Wildcats punished Poynette, 56-14, to get to this point. The two teams would have had a shared opponent from the regular season in Cambridge had the Bluejays not had to cancel on Marshall midseason. For what it’s worth, Belleville throttled them, 55-0.

As evidenced from the two scores listed above, the Wildcats can move the ball on offense. They’re led by senior quarterback Trevor Syse, who’s completed 68% of his passes this season for 1,708 yards and 23 touchdowns with only two interceptions. He can also hold his own on the ground, rushing for 381 yards and 12 scores this year. He’s by far the best quarterback the Cardinals have faced this season.

The game’s scheduled for a 7 p.m. kick at Marshall High School. The winner of this one advances to face the winner of No. 2 Brodhead/Juda and No. 3 Richland Center.

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