Nicolet's football team used a dominant fourth quarter to pull away from a relentless but winded Wauwatosa East team, emerging victorious 28-10 at Hart Park in Wauwatosa on Friday.
The game’s first half was marked mostly by methodical ball control offenses facing down sure-tackling defenses.
East drew first blood. After forcing a Nicolet punt, the Red Raiders worked their way downfield from their own 35, picking up yardage with a steady stream of first-down runs and timely third down passes culminating in a 38 yard field goal.
"(East's) offensive line came out firing every play. That’s probably their strongest part,” said Nicolet linebacker Alex Walker. "(Junior running back Mike) Meade is one tough little runner. He’s low to the ground, but tough to bring down.”
Third downs were all about quarterback Kyle Vnuk. The tall lanky Red Raider snuck through the line for one first down, then threw for two more to senior Vince Cupertino (16 yards) & junior Shaquille Redding (10 yards).
“He’s good,” Nicolet coach Brad Kozaczuk said. “Junior, big kid, great arm, and only going to get better.”
But the next four drives fizzled and stalled for both teams. Swarming defensive fronts reined in and collapsed on interior run plays. Neither side could buy enough time or string together enough passes to mount a significant air attack.
“Both defenses were playing well,” Kozaczuk said. “Both run a three front, which means bringing blitzes from lots of different places and angles. Makes it really tough for offensive lines.”
Nicolet senior quarterback Brandon Kappel agreed.
“Their D line was great, and they’ve got fast guys on the perimeter, especially (senior linebacker Will) Monreal. They should have a good year.”
Nicolet got its first break just before half. Facing fourth down with 2:54 remaining, the snap sailed over East’s punter. Six plays later, Nicolet was in the end zone. Kappel picked up the last seven yards and touchdown on a pair of quarterback keepers.
The third quarter featured more back and forth stalemate.
After junior Tyler Crass intercepted a pass at the Nicolet 12, the Knights went deep.
Kappel escaped a collapsing pocket and heaved a bomb down the right sideline. He found Walker all alone. The senior pulled the pass in, galloping 71 yards for the score.
Nicolet appeared to be in good shape. But after forcing a punt on the ensuing drive and rushing for a first down, the Knights fumbled the snap. East recovered and six plays later, the Red Raiders were in the end zone.
Vnuk threw a 6-yard bullet through the tightest of traffic to senior Josh Smentek, who tumbled forward into the end zone on the fourth quarter’s first play to make the game 13-10.
But that was the beginning of the end for East. Led by junior linebacker Hunter Crass and senior lineman Bernard Stutts, Nicolet tightened the screws. East’s final fourth quarter possessions resulted in a punt, a turnover on downs and an interception (junior Delton Clay) .
“In the first half we had multiple opportunities to take over,” said Wauwatosa East coach Jake Wolter. “But we gave up some situation spots we shouldn’t have. When third and longs turn into first downs, you’re in trouble. You can’t live off of that.”
Nicolet turned the tables at the 7:30 mark in the fourth quarter. A quick bursting punt return and pair of East penalties put Nicolet near East’s 10. Four plays later, Kappel rolled out and found Tyler Crass in the corner of the end zone.
“We got gassed,” Wolter said. “A lot of guys were playing both ways, and on special teams. They got gassed. And when we got down on the scoreboard, their heads sank a little bit.”
The Knight buried the Red Raiders once and for all at the 5:00 mark. On a play-action fake, Kappel rolled to his right, and found a wide open Nolan Wagner on the goal line. The pass hit the junior right in the numbers. He cradled it with two hands and backed into the end zone for the final score.
“Our running game was effective, when we executed it,” Wolter said. “Our passing game was not bad. We’ve just got to get a little more wind and cash in at some key moments.”
“We had to find our feet a little bit,” said Nicolet coach Brad Kozaczuk. “But we got more intense as the game went along. We faced adversity and found a way to overcome it.”