The Minnesota way in prep football, branded by coaches for decades, utilizes legs, brawn and backfield foot speed.
Faced with the formidable task of building a football program from scratch, Chanhassen coach Bill Rosburg waded through history.
Hoping to forge a path that eventually would lead to downtown Minneapolis, site of the Prep Bowl, Rosburg dug into the state’s most successful programs.
It was 2008 and football was in the midst of a movement toward wide-open offenses, yet Rosburg chose to buck the trend. He dusted off the veer, an old-school, run-heavy offense that dabbles in passing.
“If you do any research, you’ll find a heavy correlation between running the ball and winning,” Rosburg said. “So we committed to an old-fashioned running game.”
The decision has paid off. Entering its fifth year with a football program, Chanhassen is expected to battle for the top spot in the Missota Conference.
Chanhassen is far from the only team to resist the urge to pass. Traditional powers Eden Prairie, Wayzata, Totino-Grace, Hutchinson and Glencoe-Silver Lake have built their identities around solid ground games.
That’s not to say the Storm has abandoned the passing game altogether, or that a team more willing to throw — Cretin-Derham Hall, over the years — can’t have success. But in the past five years of Prep Bowl championships, teams that took home the winning trophy gained more yards running than passing in 25 of the 31 games.
It’s the Minnesota way, owing in part to its climate as well as a talent base not known for producing speedy receivers. Here, it’s substance over style and footwork over flash. Winning means going through, more than over, the other guy.
In last November’s Prep Bowl, the seven winners rushed 358 times for 2,107 yards and 27 touchdowns. More than 82 percent of the total yards — and 87 percent of the plays — utilized nothing but legs, brawn and backfield foot speed.
The seven champions passed the ball an average of seven to eight times for fewer than 70 yards. Two teams — Hutchinson (Class 4A) and Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley (Nine-Man) — had no passing yards at all. Even Eden Prairie, in taking its second consecutive big-school title with a wealth of talented athletes, managed only 1 yard passing.
“Football evolves, but we still believe it’s all about running the ball,” said Hutchinson coach Andy Rostburg, whose Tigers rolled up 516 rushing yards in a rout of Holy Family in the Class 4A final. “If you would have told me before the game that we would get that many yards and never have to throw, I would have said that’s pretty hard to do. But you go with what works.”
Adapt like Army, Air Force
Three coaches — Prior Lake’s Matt Gegenheimer, Rosemount’s Jeff Erdmann and South St. Paul’s Chad Sexauer — rebuilt their programs with the toughness, confidence and success run-heavy offenses can provide.
Gegenheimer and Sexauer both made the state tournament twice while Erdmann and the Irish have made four trips. Their schemes were part necessity, part design.
Erdmann and Sexauer both used option football to feature the few playmakers to be found on their small rosters and mask their relatively light offensive linemen.
“It was kind of like the scene from ‘We Are Marshall’ where the coaches ask, ‘What can we run where we don’t have to block?’ ” Erdmann said. “That’s why we run veer and triple option. We can teach a guy to read a guy better than we can [teach them] to be a big, strong guy.”
Sexauer said: “We compare ourselves to the programs at Army and Air Force that do something a little different with undersized kids but still have a hard-nosed mentality.”
Gegenheimer hoped to foster toughness when he switched Prior Lake from a pro-set to wing-T three years into his tenure. Prior Lake went from passing the ball about 60 percent of the time, with limited proficiency, to utilizing three different ball carriers.
“Prior Lake was so up and down,” Gegenheimer said. “Being tougher has made us more competitive.”
Players and coaches concur: Running the football still is the best method of imposing your will on an opponent.
“Running the ball is way more fun than passing,” said Frank Ragnow, Chanhassen’s Division I offensive line prospect. “You break four or five runs and you can just see how demoralizing it is to the other team.”
Trent Woodcock grew up watching Rosemount football, dreaming of becoming the next bruising Irish fullback. Now a senior fulfilling the role, he understands the value of creating identity through style of play.
“Some teams will be flashy and try to throw big passes,” Woodcock said. “We’re just smash-mouth. We’re running up the gut and we’re going to run you over no matter what you try to do.”
More speed where it’s warmer
The reasons behind the “Minnesota Brand” are many. Weather is the most obvious as the latter stages of the season are played in the bluster and bite of late fall.
After this fall’s Metrodome finale, the Prep Bowl championships in late November will move outdoors as well, at least until a new Vikings stadium opens.
“That determines a lot,” Glencoe-Silver Lake coach Scott Tschimperle said. “In Minnesota, you never know what kind of weather you’re going to get.”
The type of available talent also is a factor. According to Rivals.com, Minnesota produced seven signees in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) in 2013. Texas produced 346, Florida 332.
“In the South, there’s so much speed,” Gegenheimer said. “And running the ball fits the Midwest mentality of working hard and being good at what you do.”
These days, speed and smarts are part of the approach as well as teams design plays to do more than just “move the pile.’’ Sexauer said Packers quarterback Billy Brandecker “has to be athletic and has to think. We don’t want to get into a 3-yard play.”
Teams run the ball out of multiple sets, spreading guys out, looking to create space for their speedsters.
“It’s all about speed now,” Totino-Grace coach Jeff Ferguson said. “If you can’t run, you can’t play.”
Need ability to be balanced
Yet passing still is relevant. Most coaches know being able to throw is a necessity. They talk often about a balanced attack, yet they agree that perception is as important as reality. Coaches might prefer not to throw, but “you have to have the ability to be balanced,” Rostburg said.
Added Rosemount’s Erdmann, “You have to be able to throw if you can’t run.” His Irish upset No. 1 seed Edina in the Class 6A state tournament quarterfinals rushing for 38 yards but passing for 180 yards.
Passing also takes timing and precision. And it takes talent at quarterback, which can be hard to come by.
“It’s a lot easier to be good at running than it is to be good at throwing,” Rostburg said.
Which, in turn, makes it easier to refine.
Said Ferguson: “It all comes down to execution,” he said. “Teams that execute are the teams that win.”