With everything that’s been said about this unusual high school football season — the move to district scheduling, the early start and early finish — the final stretch of the regular season seems much like it always has. We have big games deciding subdistrict (not conference) titles, and even bigger games with section seeding implications. There are also last-chance contests for teams needing a confidence boost or a little extra seasoning before playoffs begin next week. With that in mind, here are six of the best games Thursday and Friday and what’s at stake:
Albany (7-0) at Becker (7-0), 7 p.m.
At stake: The East Central North subdistrict championship. And, of course, a perfect regular-season record.
The rundown: Is it possible defending Class 4A champ Becker is even better this year? Sure looks like it. The Bulldogs have had one close game all year, defeating Zimmerman 29-22. They have scored 41 or more points six times, including two 60-plus-point games. The offense might be more balanced than in 2014, averaging more than 260 yards per game on the ground and 167 through the air. Albany’s strength is its 25 seniors and a relentless power-I running game that chews up yards, time and opponents. QB Taylor Fourre is a dual threat, having rushed for 513 yards and passed, at a 58.2 percent clip, for 464 yards. The Huskies struggled with Zimmerman, too, needing two fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull out a 34-28 victory.
Jim says: Albany will need to temper Becker’s big-play ability, control the clock and shorten the game. That’s asking a lot. Becker 38, Albany 30.
David says: Albany, one of the state’s top Class 3A teams, can beat 4A programs — but not the reigning state champs. Becker 35, Albany 21
St. Michael-Albertville (6-1) at Monticello (7-0), 7 p.m.
At stake: The winner is guaranteed the top seed in Class 5A, Section 6. The loser will most likely be the No. 2 seed, but Monticello, with a loss, could fall behind Rogers to the No. 3 slot.
The rundown: Give the Knights a mulligan on their season-opening loss to Moorhead. Since then, they’ve likely been the best team in Class 5A, rolling up six consecutive victories, none of them close. Running backs Mitch Kartes and Eric Sjelin are classic thunder and lightning; Sjelin gets the tough yards while Kartes provides the speed. Monticello, led by its big, physical offensive line anchored by Gophers recruit Conner Olson, has lived up to high expectations. The Magic is averaging 303.6 yards rushing per game. The Magic’s defense, which has been up and down, must stay consistent for four quarters.
Jim says: It’s hard to pick against St. Michael-Albertville’s experience in big games. Monticello will move the ball on the ground, but not consistently. St. Michael-Albertville 35, Monticello 20
David says: I need to mention the Knights’ Isaiah Weston, one of the state’s top playmakers. Something tells me he becomes a factor. St. Michael-Albertville 30, Monticello 27.
Wayzata (6-1) at Eden Prairie (7-0), 7 p.m.
At stake: Eden Prairie can win the West Metro South title outright. A Wayzata upset means the Trojans and Maple Grove could get a share, too.
The rundown: This used to be a must-watch showdown, but the programs are in different places of late. Eden Prairie won the past four consecutive big-school titles, while Wayzata has come back to the pack. Eden Prairie has won four of the past six meetings, including twice in the playoffs. When it comes to playmakers, Eden Prairie has its share. Gophers commit Carter Coughlin anchors a solid defense. Sleep on receiver Kyle Connelly at your peril. He only has eight catches but averages 37.5 yards per reception. And if you haven’t heard about JD Spielman by now, you’re missing out. The Nebraska commit adds to his highlight tape every week whether rushing, receiving, playing cornerback or returning kicks. Spielman has scored 15 touchdowns, most in explosive fashion. Wayzata makes plays by committee. Quarterback Jake Marsh has thrown for 12 touchdowns. Running backs Keeshawn Aleksuk, Foster Conzet and Connor Moen have combined for more than 700 yards rushing and scored seven touchdowns. More than stopping opponents, the defense has provided points. Parker Hlavacek, Sam Kolpin and Jake Krull have each returned an interception for a touchdown.
Jim says: I thought Eden Prairie’s 2014 team was the best in state history. This Eagles team has a chance to be even better. Eden Prairie 34, Wayzata 16
David says: Is there a one-loss team with less fanfare than Wayzata? Credit Trojans players for rebounding from a 3-7 debacle last year. But Eden Prairie is something special. Eden Prairie 42, Wayzata 7
Lakeville North (7-0) at Rosemount (6-1), 7 p.m.
At stake: If Lakeville North wins, the Panthers win the East Metro White subdistrict title and they’ll be the top seed in Class 6A, Section 3. A Rosemount victory will likely create a three-way tie for the title if Burnsville wins. The top seed would be determined by a vote of coaches.
The rundown: Both programs suffered huge losses to graduation but have maintained high levels of play rather than endure growing pains. The biggest difference is in the styles of play. Lakeville North’s defense doesn’t have the wow factor it had last year, but QB Drew Stewart and RB Wade Sullivan have added big-play capabilities. Rosemount is back to running its option offense and has moved the ball smoothly through much of the season. The Irish have had one recurring problem: turnovers, including four in their loss to Burnsville last week. You can bet coach Jeff Erdmann made that a point of emphasis this week.
Jim says: Rosemount has wanted another shot at Lakeville North since the Panthers ousted the Irish from the 2014 Class 6A quarterfinals. Rosemount 17, Lakeville North 14.
David says: Your Irish should be mindful of what they wish for. Lakeville North isn’t included in Prep Bowl discussions. Defeating Rosemount should change that. Lakeville North 21, Rosemount 14
Woodbury (6-1) at East Ridge (7-0), 7 p.m.
At stake: Win and East Ridge gets the East Metro Blue subdistrict title all to itself and likely the top seed in Class 6A, Section 4. A Woodbury upset makes the Royals co-champs.
The rundown: You would expect East Ridge and Woodbury, schools only miles apart, to be a rivalry game. You would be lying if you expected this game to be so meaningful. Woodbury lost all but one game last season. East Ridge lost two Division I players a year earlier than planned and its coach a week before the season. But here we are. Both teams defeated Cretin-Derham Hall and Mounds View. Woodbury has displayed grit all season, winning four games by seven or fewer points. Woodbury quarterback Brady Mundahl has produced more than 1,500 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns. The East Ridge defense will make him work. The Raptors allow 15 points per game. Their dual-threat running attack — running back Dominik London (175 yards per game) and quarterback Otumos Payemanu (81 ypg) — helps East Ridge control games. The past six games, all victories, saw the Raptors average 37 points per game.
Jim says: London has rushed for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns in three consecutive games. The Royals will focus on him, but that doesn’t mean they stop him. East Ridge 28, Woodbury 14.
David says: A matchup featuring dynamic East Ridge against dogged Woodbury. The Raptors must find favorable matchups and exploit them because Woodbury won’t beat itself. East Ridge 21, Woodbury 16
Cooper (6-1) at Spring Lake Park (7-0), 7 p.m.
At stake: The Suburban Red subdistrict championship and top seed in the Class 5A, Section 5 playoffs.
The rundown: Spring Lake Park has seen its share of opposing playmakers this season and has yet to get the short end. Cooper, however, offers two go-the-distance threats in quarterback Phillip Howard (more than 1,000 total yards on offense and 14 touchdowns) and running back Levonte Taylor (832 yards rushing, 15 TDs). The Hawks are a five-point loss from carrying an undefeated record. They must convert their speed and skill into points and get ahead of Spring Lake Park, which reached the state tournament semifinals last season. A bruising, consistent option offense is the Panthers’ preferred path downfield. Quarterback Zachary Ojile and running back Isley Carrington are each just short of 1,000 yards rushing. They have combined for 26 touchdowns. Fullback Luke Stafford has chipped in 431 yards and five scores. Even when the Panthers appear down, however, they are not out. They trailed Armstrong by two scores with less than eight minutes to play and mounted a successful comeback.
Jim says: Spring Lake Park has defeated Cooper nine consecutive times since 2004, only once by fewer than 16 points. The Panthers will make it 10 in a row. Spring Lake Park 33, Cooper 24.
David says: A rematch in the section final feels inevitable. I’ll take Cooper for the upset Friday and count the days until they match up again. Cooper 21, Spring Lake Park 20