With a banged up offensive line and their starting running back lost early in the game, the Muskies offence looked to be in precarious shape last Friday in Dryden.
Enter quarterback Gary Wager.
Wager, protected by a patched-up offensive line, threw the ball consistently all afternoon to lead the Muskies to a dominating 36-9 victory over the host Eagles.
The win improved the black-and-gold’s NorWOSSA-leading record to a perfect 3-0 while the Eagles fell to 0-3.
“Their passing attack is head and shoulders above ours,” Dryden coach Geoff Zilkalns said. “They have a good quarterback and good receivers. Our guys had a bit better positioning than the first time, but the pass got them [downfield].”
Muskie head coach Bob Swing agreed they threw the ball “quite a bit” for three quarters with Wager at the helm. But while he said the receivers made some nice catches, he admitted they also dropped some balls that could have led to more scoring.
“Gary threw some nice balls—this was different than the first game [against Dryden]. He was dropping straight back, and he was getting the protection from the offensive line,” said Swing.
“And when we needed to run, we did run the ball.”
But while Wager was at the top of his game Friday, so was the young offensive line in front of him. Swing felt they did “pretty well” protecting Wager.
In fact, the Muskies used a good mix of the run and pass on their very first series, which led to a one-yard run by starting running back Scott Witherspoon just 5:24 into the game to put the team up 6-0 (the point after attempt was missed).
The black-and-gold then made it 12-0 at 12:36 of the quarter (the two-point conversion try failed) on a sizzling 45-yard touchdown catch by Mark Mercure from Wager.
That touchdown was set up by a blocked punt near midfield.
The Muskies then closed out the scoring in the first quarter when David Gemmell banged the ball in from close range to give them a commanding 18-zip bulge.
Eagle running back Byron McKenzie, who racked up about 280 yards against the Muskies in their first game here last month, got the Eagles on the board with a second-quarter touchdown to close the gap to 18-8 at halftime. McKenzie, who leads all NorWOSSA rushers with 720 yards on the season, was limited to just 76 yards on 16 carries.
Muskie defensive co-ordinator Brent DeBenedet said his unit did a much better job stopping Dryden’s running game this time around. In fact, they held McKenzie—NorWOSSA’s top rusher with 720 yards so far this season—to just 76 yards on 16 carries.
“We stopped him and he didn’t get much,” said DeBenedet. “We contained them but we could have had some big plays but we missed some tackles.”
Meanwhile, Wager wasn’t finished offensively in the second half. He hit Doug LaBelle with a 60-yard bomb to make it 26-8, then Chad Canfield rammed his way in from a yard out for a 34-8 lead (both two-point converts were successful).
The Muskies later added a safety and Dryden a single on a punt to close out the scoring.
Receivers coach Ron Fryer said the team’s offensive outburst was the case of the receivers and quarterback clicking on all cylinders.
“The quarterback was on the money and the boys were catching the ball,” he said. “Gary has a strong arm and is accurate . . . the deep threat is there.
“The boys did a good job running their routes,” he added.
Looking ahead, the banged-up Muskies won’t have much time to nurse their array of injuries as they host the Kenora Broncos here tomorrow at 3:30 p.m.
A win would all but guarantee the Muskies first place in NorWOSSA—and the chance to host the league final Nov. 6. But a loss would pull the 2-1 Broncos to within a game of the black-and-gold with two games to play.