ZUMBROTA — An 0-3 start could have been the death knell to an otherwise promising season for Zumbrota-Mazeppa.
But, this is a Cougars team that reached the Section 1AA championship game a year ago. They knew they were talented, even if the standings didn't show it. And in the second half of the season, Z-M is on a mission to prove they are still a contender.
"We knew after those three games that there would be some opportunities for us," said Cougars' senior quarterback Isaiah Nolte. "After those three games, all our talk was about moving forward. You can't look at the rear-view mirror, look out the windshield. It's all about steps forward."
Z-M's belief goes further than that. They believe they are talented enough to be a top contender, even after moving up to Section 1AAA.
"I believe we can (reach a section final) again. We can go to state this year," said senior linebacker Spencer DeFrang. "We just have to keep going."
After the slow start, the Cougars seem to have found their stride, winning for the third time in four games on Friday with a 34-7 drubbing of Southeast White Division foe Dover-Eyota.
The Cougars wanted to come on the field Friday and pop the Eagles in the mouth. And the defense — whether it was from jarring hits or swarms of blue bringing down the ball carrier — set the tone with just 76 yards allowed in the first half.
"We really worked on how we set up on defense. We knew whenever they set up in a formation, we had a formation to stop that," said DeFrang, who finished with eight total tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. "We wanted everybody to the ball, all 11 guys. Some guys will get up and say 'Nice hit,' and some would not take it as well. We're trying to break other teams down."
Dover-Eyota's lone score came from the defense when Coleton Swee picked the ball off and went 45 yards for a touchdown.
Z-M's defense also found a way to get on the scoreboard when, with 17 seconds to go before halftime, Jacob Niebuhr picked off a Swee pass and raced 98 yards for the touchdown.
The Cougars forced a total of four turnovers with interceptions from Niebuhr, Robvon Jackson and Tyler Grudem along with DeFrang's fumble recovery.
"We got some kids with some moxie, that's for sure," Z-M head coach Darin Raasch said with a laugh about his defense. "The stats don't show how well they play. Other than Lewiston, there hasn't been a lot of big plays against these guys."
On offense, nobody could slow down Nolte in the first half.
The signal-caller, who took over the role midway through Week 3, had three first-half touchdowns through the air with another coming on the ground.
The first touchdown pass came on Z-M's first play from scrimmage when Nolte hit Robvon Jackson for a 45-yard strike. Then at the 5-minute, 9-second mark of the first quarter, Jacob Niebuhr caught a pass on 4th-and-7 and went 15 yards for the score.
Another drive yielded another Nolte-to-Niebuhr scoring connection, this time from 2 yards out.
"All my receivers, they help me out so much and they give me so much confidence," said Nolte, who finished 8 of 14 passing for 153 yards and two interceptions. He also ran the ball three times for 42 yards.
"I got so many good receivers as options. There's not too much to complain about because you can't get much better receivers than what I have. I've been really comfortable lately."
The final offensive drive of the first half saw Nolte use his legs to turn a 2nd-and-20 to a 32-yard touchdown scamper.
"We have run the ball really well the last few weeks but we feel like we can throw and it was nice to see us be able to do that tonight," Raasch said. "Isaiah threw the ball very well, finding all our guys tonight and spreading the wealth."
Jacob Bennett led the Cougars' ground game with 60 yards on 17 carries. Niebuhr came up with 62 receiving yards on four catches while Jacobson finished with two grabs and 83 yards.
Swee was 8 of 23 passing for 62 yards, and Marcus Otomo led Dover-Eyota with 70 rushing yards on 19 carries.
Now at 3-4, Z-M faces its final test before section play on Wednesday when the Cougars head to Triton. The fifth-ranked (Class 2A) Cobras had little trouble putting away Lewiston-Altura on Friday with a 42-14 victory.