CHIPPEWA FALLS — Playing a clean game can make all the difference at any level of football. The gauntlet that is the Big Rivers Conference is no exception, and that much was clear at Dorais Field on Friday.
Rice Lake forced three huge, momentum-killing turnovers in the first half and was steady on offense to notch a 34-13 win over Chippewa Falls. The Cardinals fumbled three times in Rice Lake territory, with the biggest coming as time expired in the second quarter. Peyton Buckley returned the fumble 68 yards for a touchdown to give the Warriors a massive boost heading into the locker room.
“In high school ball, turnovers are huge,” Rice Lake coach Dan Hill said. “Especially when you score on them. That’s a game-changing play.”
Chippewa Falls’ struggles to keep hold of the ball showed early. After moving the ball to the Rice Lake 28-yard line on the game’s opening drive, Rice Lake forced a fumble and quickly converted it into points. Buckley threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Braeden Verbsky on the ensuing drive — his only completion of the game — to give the Warriors a 6-0 lead.
The Cardinals’ next drive bore similar fruit. Chippewa Falls (2-2, 0-2) went 61 yards on three plays to get the ball to Rice Lake’s nine-yard line, but coughed the ball up again to lose possession.
The Warriors’ offense didn’t capitalize on that turnover, and Matt Pomietlo eventually gave the Cardinals a 7-6 lead with a 14-yard touchdown run with 2:04 remaining in the first half.
Rice Lake (4-0, 2-0) had an answer though, as DeAirus Clerveaux ran for a 15-yard touchdown — the first of two scores for him in the contest — with 38 seconds until the halftime break.
Trailing 12-7, Chippewa Falls looked to move the ball quickly to put more points on the board before halftime. They almost succeeded, driving 47 yards to get the ball to the Rice Lake 21-yard line. But a backward pass fell into no-man’s land on the ground, and Buckley scooped it up to take it to the house for a 68-yard score.
“It’s so heartbreaking, to be in control — and our goal was to keep their offense off the field, and we were doing that — then we’d fumble,” Chippewa Falls coach Chuck Raykovich said. “The kids played their hearts out tonight, but we made too many mistakes.”
A week after giving up 35 points to Eau Claire Memorial, Rice Lake wanted a better showing on defense. The Warriors got it in on Friday.
“Defense played a lot better this week,” Hill said. “The last two weeks, they’ve made big strides.”
In a run-heavy contest, Rice Lake’s triple option won out over the double-wing look Chippewa Falls employed. DeAirus Clerveaux and his brother Marquez combined for 141 rushing yards, and Torien Hubbard added 89 yards on 20 carries for the Warriors. DeAirus’ 19-yard touchdown on a misdirection run late in the third quarter highlighted the effectiveness Rice Lake was having with its multi-option look.
“High school football should be simple enough where you’ve got your main plays — for us that’s triple option counter — and you’ve got play action. You try to do other fancy stuff outside of that, you’re probably spending too much time not getting really good at anything,” Hill said.
Rice Lake routinely started drives in good field position in the second half, and used that to full advantage. The Warriors did not have a single drive start inside their own 30-yard line in the final two quarters.
“The defense was put in a bad spot like we did last week, same thing,” Raykovich said. “We can’t put the ball on the ground against a good team, bottom line. Think about it, three turnovers tonight that should have been scores for the Cardinals and weren’t, and they converted.”
Tyler Bohland, who rushed for a five-yard score in the fourth quarter, racked up 93 yards on 12 carries for Chippewa Falls. Pomietlo tallied 78 yards.
Buckley scored on a quarterback dive from the one-yard line to ice the game away with 51 seconds left in regulation.
“We’ve got to clean things up and we’ll be fine,” Raykovich said. “There’s a lot of football left, and (the team’s) not going to quit.”