Two coaches faced the same remember-it-forever moment in the Prep Bowl, the same decision: Go with one play that would either win or lose the state championship, or play it safe to extend the game.
Neither man flinched.
"That was never in my mind," Chanhassen coach Cullen Nelson said of the safe option.
"There was not a lot of [debating] going into the decision at that moment," Edina's Jason Potts said.
Two final moments of title games, two decisions, two different outcomes, two diametrically opposed emotions after the fact. But both coaches earn a FAM standing ovation for being aggressive and trusting their players with the state championship there for the taking.
Start with Chanhassen in Saturday's Class 5A game. The Storm and St. Thomas Academy went to overtime tied 28-28. The Cadets kicked a field goal on their possession.
Chanhassen had a botched handoff exchange on third down of its possession that running back Maxwell Woods recovered at the 2-yard line.
Nelson had two options on fourth down: attempt a field goal that would force a second overtime, or go for the win.
"How many times do you get the ball on the 2-yard line with a chance to win the state championship?" Nelson said a day later.
And how often does a team have a player as supremely talented as Woods, the Star Tribune's Metro Player of the Year?
Part of Nelson's calculus in going for the win was that Woods looked gassed after playing both ways all game. The North Dakota State recruit had rushed for 215 yards on 20 carries, caught two passes, returned three kickoffs and made critical plays on defense, including several pass breakups.
Nelson didn't want to extend the game. Four consecutive one-score playoff games had left his players "physically and emotionally" drained. He could see it.
"I said, 'We've got to go,'" he said.
Nelson said he can "spill the beans now." They have a rule in goal-line situations: Either hand it to Woods or fake it to him. With the game on the line and the ball at the 2, probably 99% of observers expected Woods to touch the ball.
The Storm called "Power Pass Right," which they used against Mankato East in early October. Quarterback Brayden Windschitl faked a handoff to Woods to make the defense commit and then lofted a pass to Kade Bush in the end zone for the winner. Final score, 34-31.
"Pretty awesome night," Nelson said.
A phone call to Edina's Potts on Sunday afternoon had a different tone.
"It's tough to lose like that," he said. "I'm really proud of our team but also feeling the blues."
Trailing Centennial 28-14 in the fourth quarter of Friday night's Class 6A championship game, Edina scored two touchdowns, including a touchdown pass with 16 seconds remaining that cut the deficit to 28-27. An extra point most likely would have forced overtime. Potts went for the win.
"I would do it 100 times out of 100," he said.
His logic was multifaceted: His team had momentum. Centennial was a powerful opponent averaging nearly five yards per carry in the game. And if they went to overtime, they would be starting at the 10-yard line instead of getting one play from the 3.
Potts trusted his players because they had rehearsed that exact scenario and exact play in practice every Thursday during the season. There were no surprises in that moment.
"I told them that if we ever have a chance to take the game or tie it, we're going to go for it and this is the play that we're going to run," Potts said.
The play had a creative design. Quarterback Mason West took the snap and, moving left, faked a pitch to his running back. Chase Bjorgaard, who had lined up on the left side of the formation, cut across for a misdirection shovel pass. Bjorgaard plowed toward the goal line but was stopped short by inches.
That was the first time the Hornets ran that play all season. "It's a play that nobody knew we had in our library," Potts said. "So it's something they were going to have to stop on the fly and they did. Credit them. They did a really good job."
The play was reviewed by replay, which led to some agonizing moments. Said Potts: "You're waiting on the replay, waiting for the call, your heart is beating, you're in a cool environment, the lights, the crowds on both sides are just buzzing."
The replay was definitive. Bjorgaard's forearm touched short of the goal line.
"It's so hard to get to that moment and to have it end by that short of a distance," Potts said. "I think that's what I'm struggling with the most."
Potts said he's heard from a lot of people who supported his decision. Given time to reflect on it, he doesn't second-guess himself.
"I don't regret the decision," Potts said.
Nor should he. His team practiced that play all season. He trusted his players. They were prepared and took their shot. It didn't work out.
If the Hornets ever face that situation again — and they will, because Potts is a terrific coach — he vows to keep his aggressive approach despite the disappointment he feels right now.
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Opposite of bold coaching costs Vikings
The blame for an inexcusable, nightmarish 12-10 loss to the Chicago Bears is shared inside the Vikings locker room. That they were even in position to win with Joshua Dobbs throwing four interceptions highlights how feeble the Bears' offense was. It's difficult for a team to win when a quarterback plays as poorly as Dobbs did.
But coach Kevin O'Connell left the door open for the opponent with conservative play-calling at a critical moment for the second consecutive week, and it cost him again.
Leading 10-9, the Vikings took possession after a fumble recovery at the Bears' 43-yard line with 3:28 left in the game. O'Connell called back-to-back runs for Alexander Mattison that gained 1 yard total. On third-and-long, Dobbs threw a screen pass to Brandon Powell that lost 1 yard.
"You're fighting that battle between being aggressive and risking giving them a short field if we turn it over again versus trying to make sure you're making them use [their] timeouts and then trusting the [defense]," O'Connell said.
Dobbs' turnovers understandably created uneasiness, but why not play to his strengths in that situation by calling something creative that allowed him to use his feet? Perhaps a designed run. Or a high-percentage pass concept to tight end T.J. Hockenson.
The Bears used their timeouts to preserve time and the entire possession lasted only 59 seconds. The problems were compounded by a terrible 26-yard punt by Ryan Wright that gave the Bears even more hope.
Bears quarterback Justin Fields barely threw the ball past the line of scrimmage all game, but given one final chance, he completed a 36-yard pass down the field to set up a game-winning field goal.
The Bears are a bad team that had done next-to-nothing offensively, but if you give an NFL team a glimmer of hope, there is a good chance it will come back to bite you. O'Connell apparently didn't learn that lesson against Denver a week ago.
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Advice from a champion
Centennial coach Mike Diggins won his first state championship in his first Prep Bowl appearance in his 14th season as head coach. A 1982 graduate of Centennial, Diggins was coaching the freshman team at his alma mater in 1984 when the Cougars varsity finished runner-up in the program's only other title game appearance.
Diggins served as a long-time assistant under Mike Watson before replacing Watson in 2010. Diggins paid his dues before getting to taste the sweet reward of a state championship at age 59.
I asked Diggins what advice he would share with young coaches.
"The games are great but that's such a small portion of what goes on," he said. "You have to put work in and time in that is not always so fun. It is a lot of work. When you're a young coach, you've got to be prepared for that.
"The other thing is, young coaches now seem to want to start at the varsity level. They really should start at a lower level where they can make a ton of mistakes and nobody cares. You've got to start out at the ninth and 10th and JV levels because then you can call plays or call your defense and make mistakes and learn by those mistakes."
. . .
- Nolan Geislinger: Eden Valley-Watkins quarterback accounted for all four touchdowns — three passing, one rushing — in the 24-6 Class 2A Prep Bowl win over Barnesville.
- Ryan Meagher: Minneota junior tied a Prep Bowl record with five rushing touchdowns to go with 199 yards on the ground in the 43-22 Class 1A finale win against Springfield.
- Savion Hart and Maxwell Woods: The dynamic running backs put on a dueling show in the Class 5A Prep Bowl. St. Thomas Academy's Hart rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries; Chanhassen's Woods rushed for 215 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
He said what?!
"I named it the readjustment year. There are a lot of things to adjust moving forward. A lot of things to evaluate."
— Gophers coach P.J. Fleck on how he viewed the 2023 football season that ended with a 5-7 regular-season record.
Numbers to know
- 20.2: The Gophers' scoring average, which ranked 114th nationally.
- 6: Punt returns by the Gophers in 12 games, tied for the fourth fewest nationally.
- 76: Points allowed by undefeated Class 3A champion Stewartville for the season, which included six shutouts.
- 7: Combined state titles for Hutchinson's father-son coaching duo Grady and Andy Rostberg after Andy collected his fourth in the Class 4A final.
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Grab your popcorn
Basketball Across Minnesota is coming soon. This is the final FAM column of the 2023 season. My colleague Marcus Fuller lives, breathes and sleeps Minnesota hoops. His BAM column is just around the corner. Stay tuned.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
We started this weekly column three years ago because there is a wealth of wonderful stories in the Minnesota football community, from youth levels to Vikings. This state never fails to deliver compelling, fun, emotional stories that deserve to be told. I greatly appreciate all those who have allowed me to share their experiences, and all our readers who make Football Across Minnesota part of your weekly routine. Cheers!
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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly column that tours football topics in our state from preps to pros. You can find all the previous FAM columns right here. I appreciate feedback, so please reach out anytime. Thanks again — Chip (@chipscoggins on X)