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Who's got the ball? Elk River's deceptive offense provides challenge

By Jim Paulsen, Star Tribune, 11/23/17, 9:49PM CST


Confusion reigns when Elk River is on offense, even if you’ve seen it before

Elk River running back Sherrod Kpahn

It doesn’t take long for first-time observers of defending Class 5A champion Elk River’s offense to be seen muttering to themselves, accompanied by head-shaking and bemused chuckling.

“I had no clue who had the ball until [insert Elk River player’s name here] was 20 yards downfield,” they utter, or some similar variation.

The Elks’ old-school offense, known around high school football for putting up New Age numbers, has taken things to an even more astonishing level so far in the state tournament.

In two games they’ve rushed for 1,279 yards, including 700 in one of them.They’ve scored 116 points. Of their 15 touchdowns, 13 were of 20 yards or more.

All from a formation that would have looked normal 60 years ago. No wideouts, three running backs in a straight line behind the quarterback, offensive linemen bunched hip-to-hip.

Opposing defensive players are often left snapping their necks to turn to watch the ball carrier blow by them.

Confusion reigns, even if you’ve seen it before.

“The first year we played them, we had one of our best linebackers wrap up the guy with the ball and then let him go,” Andover coach Rich Wilkie recalled.

It’s all in the Elks’ speed and execution. The quarterback is the ringleader of a tightly choreographed dance in which each running back attacks his hole full bore. With or without the ball, each moves as if he has it, with both arms wrapped tightly in front. The linemen pull and trap with efficiency, sealing off holes by simply obstructing defensive players rather than fully engaging them.

It all happens so fast, and in such a small space, that the player with the ball is often well into the secondary before he’s identified.

“It’s just super frustrating,” said Apple Valley linebacker Kellen McKeag after the Elks used the U.S. Bank Stadium turf as a personal runway, compiling 700 rushing yards in a 50-41 victory over the Eagles in the Class 5A semifinals. “It just shows you that an old-school team and the old-school stuff still works.”

While it mystifies many, Elk River coach Steve Hamilton sees it simply as a matter of finding something that works and honing it to perfection.

“Part of what makes it so tough is this is all we do,” Hamilton said. “We don’t spend time on formations and shifts or anything. Last year, we had 17 off-tackle variations and we had 10 trap variations. When you’re watching the game, it looks like the same play. But for us, there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of different things that go into it.”

The offense is not unstoppable. Rogers ended Elk River’s 18-game winning streak last month by limiting explosive plays. On a sloppy, snowy field, St. Cloud Tech held the Elks to only 14 points in the Section 6 finals.

Wilkie, whose team gave up 135 points to Elk River this season in two wild shootout losses, says Elk River’s success is more about football fundamentals than sleight of hand.

“They have talented players,” he said. “They know how to adjust. And Steve is a great playcaller. I don’t know if people give him enough credit.”

Hamilton sees his team’s offensive success in a way that is pure football coach.

“It comes down to getting off the ball and blocking people,” he said. “A lot of people look at the window dressing, with the fake, and that’s a piece of it. But the bottom line for us is that we get off the ball and we block people.”

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