Rams and Clayton score twice as Air Nienhuis, Cooney’s bend-but-not break defense, combine to topple Slinger from a tie with OHS for the conference lead
The nature of the game is you have to score points to win, and Friday night OHS scored more points (28) than Slinger (14) to win its fifth straight Wisconsin Little Ten game of the season. Given that previously unbeaten Slinger was favored and the area’s No. 5 team according to the Journal Sentinel, the Cooney win was impressive and significant.
OHS went into the game also unbeaten, but unranked. That will change this week as OHS scored more points against the Owls than any team so far this season. Until last night, the Slinger defense was holding opponents to just a bit over 10 points a game.
But just as impressive was the Cooney defense. Coming into the game, Slinger was averaging over 30 points a game. Friday night OHS allowed it only 14 and 7 of those points came on a single-play, 81-yard touchdown pass. Slinger was also averaging 340 yards in total offense prior to last night, and the Cooney D, while it bent a little, as usual, allowed only 287, 201 if you eliminate the long touchdown pass than came midway through the final quarter.
Slinger’s forte is its ground game and the swarming, attacking Cooney D gave up only 128 yards rushing, the lowest total for Slinger all season. Slinger rushers carried the ball 39 times, but managed to average only 4.08 yards per rush. That is a decent figure, but far below its average per rush average coming into the game.
Slinger, especially in the second half when it was attempting to catch up and surpass the Raccoons, did put the ball in the air, something it doesn’t do often. Outside of the 81-yard bomb, it gained only 47 yards in the air. The Owls run first and pass only when necessary and Friday night, when it was necessary, it couldn’t pass either.
Points make the difference, however, and scoring 28 points against the Owls was impressive. Oconomowoc won the coin toss to start the game and elected to take the opening kickoff, something it has not done often this season. Instead, Cooney coach Ryan McMillen has deferred so OHS would have the ball to start the second half. Not this time.
Cooney junior Jake Rams made that decision look brilliant when he promptly ripped off a 95-yard kickoff return to open the game. The speedy Rams caught the ball on the OHS 5-yard line, broke left, made a nice cut at about the 30, and raced down the sideline, in front of the Slinger bench, to score on the game’s first touchdown. Message delivered.
That play got both teams’ attention, including the Cooney D as it forced a Slinger punt on the Owls first possession, after only three plays. OHS, however, was unable to move the ball on its next series, and after a Zach Clayton punt, the Cooney D again came up big as Cameron Wolf sacked Slinger quarterback Jarod Scheff for a 5-yard loss on a third-and-8 play.
Not to be outdone, Slinger then responded by sacking Cooney quarterback Ben Nienhuis twice, forcing another Cooney punt. At this point, both teams were looking for ways to slow down the other’s defensive pressure.
OHS then mounted a nice 11-play, 66-yard drive that stalled inside the Slinger 10-yard line. On a fourth-and-2 from the Slinger 4 Nienhuis was stopped for no gain, turning the ball over to Slinger on downs. But the drive demonstrated that OHS could move the ball against Slinger.
Still in the second quarter, Cooney senior Brett Samson may have come up with the play of the game, when he stepped in front of star Owls receiver Jesse Bellefeuil to wrestle away a Slinger pass. Samson then raced 41 yards with the ball, breaking tackles along the way, to put the ball on the Owls 14-yard line.
Two plays later, Rams had his second touchdown of the game, as he took a pitch from Nienhuis, ran left, and the cut up and into the end zone for a 7-yard yard TD.
Carson Roselip’s PAT gave OHS a 14-0 with just under 3 minutes left in the second quarter.
More importantly, it gave OHS momentum while at the same time creating a heightened sense of urgency for the Owls, who had not trailed by 14 points in a game all season. In fact, no team had managed to score as many as 14 points against Slinger in the first half of any of its games.
Slinger did manage to put some points on the scoreboard late in the third quarter.
With just 44 seconds left on the clock, it scored on a 5-yard run to narrow the Cooney lead to 14-7. On the 20-play, 76-yard drive that led to the score, Slinger converted on two fourth down plays. Slinger possessed the ball for an amazing 11 minutes. It was as if Slinger was saying, OK, you’ve had your fun, but we can and will run the ball down your throat: we’re taking over.
OHS, however, has Air Nienhuis, featuring Zach Clayton, the amazing conference-leading wide receiver. Clayton is one of those rare players who can take over a game. He not only catches the ball well, often making acrobatic catches, but he also has an uncanny ability to pile up yards after the catch. Friday night against Slinger, Clayton caught six passes (out of nine directed at him) for 143 yards and two touchdowns. That by itself is impressive, but 109 of those yards came after the catch.
So after the Slinger score, Nienhuis and Clayton went to work. Twice the duo connected to keep a Cooney drive alive heading into the final quarter. One completion was good for 9 yards on a third-and-5 play. The other was good for 27 yards and another first down on a first-and-10 at the 50-yard line. OHS advanced the ball down to 15-yard line where on fourth-and-2, Nienhuis found Clayton for a 15-yard score with 7:50 showing on the game clock. That made the score 21-7 in favor of the Raccoons. Huge drive and score because it gave OHS a 14-point lead and cushion once again.
Slinger quickly responded, however, when Bellefeuil caught the Cooney defense looking. Slinger lined up three receivers on its right side, something it had not not all night, leaving Bellefeuil alone on the left. He had a 10-yard lead on the Cooney defender when he caught the ball on the OHS 24-yard yard for an easy score. Another wakeup call.
With the score now down to 21-14, Nienhuis and Clayton responded with an equally spectacular play. For most of the game Slinger doubled Clayton with a corner up close and a safety over the top. On this play, on a first-and-10 from the Cooney 34-yard line, Clayton lined up on the left, broke outside and when Neinhuis’ ball dropped in his hands, Clayton was 10 yards away from the nearest defender. The Cooney junior caught the ball on the 50 and then juked a late arriving Slinger defender on the 35 to score his second touchdown of the game. Roseleip’s kick made the score 28-14 with just over six minutes to go in the game.
Slinger is built to run the ball (the left side of its offensive line features three players listed as weighing more than 300 pounds each), not throw it, but behind by 14 with 6 minutes to go, it needed two scores in a hurry so it went to the air.
With over two minutes left it had advanced down to the Cooney 5-yard. There, on a fourth-and-goal play, it benefited from a controversial interference call from the officials. On the play, McMillen inserted Clayton, his best athlete, to play defense. Slinger tried a slant pass and Clayton jumped the route for what appeared to be a Cooney interception. But the officials did not see that way, negating the turnover and giving Slinger another shot at the end zone.
But the snap from center on the next play was a little high and off-center and when the ball bounced off the hands of the Slinger quarterback, creating a mad scramble for the loose ball, the drive stalled. Cooney’s Brett Samson was credited with the fumble recovery.
Slinger did manage one more drive, but Spencer Waldron picked off a last-ditch Slinger pass attempt to seal the win.
OHS is now alone in first place in the conference standings at 5-0. Slinger drops down into a second-place tie with Watertown, both at 4-1. Slinger defeated Watertown, 35-7, on Sept 11. OHS and Watertown meet on Oct. 16 at Watertown in a game that will probably decide the WLT championship. If OHS gets past West Bend West next week at OHS, it would go into the game at Watertown with a one-game lead. Watertown meets West Bend East next week. Slinger plays WISCO next week and Hartford in its season finale.
Wisconsin Lutheran 3-2
Beaver Dam 1-4
West Bend East 1-4
West Bend West 0-5