BISMARCK — Unfazed by the 40-mile-per-hour wind, the blowing snow and the Bismarck defense, quarterback Dustin Mertz led West Fargo to a 40-21 win Friday in the quarterfinals of the North Dakota Class 3A state high school football playoffs.
Mertz threw for 310 yards and three touchdown passes and added three scoring runs as West Fargo marched up and down the MDU Resources Community Bowl field without much opposition. Mertz accounted for five touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the Packers up 33-14.
“It was not easy,” Mertz said. “Our line came out to play and that’s what I needed, and my receivers made plays. That’s the best overall game we’ve played all year.”
Mertz, a converted receiver, completed 19 of 26 passes, including touchdowns of 13 and 15 yards to Carter Birrenkott and 12 yards to Carson Hegerle.
Birrenkott had five catches for 117 yards. Hegerle added seven catches for 98 yards and Marcus Gulley had six catches for 92 yards.
“Dustin has really improved. He was one of our better receivers the last two years,” West Fargo coach Jay Gibson said. “He was phenomenal. There were two or three times that he went to his number three guy. And we have some guys that can catch the ball.”
Bismarck, the defending state champion, had its 30th straight playoff appearance end prematurely and its season conclude at 5-5 while West Fargo, the 2017 champion, moves into the semifinals with a 6-4 mark.
The teams have a lengthy playoff history. Going back to 2002, West Fargo has won five times (2002, 2003, 2015, 2017, 2019) and Bismarck five times (2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013).
West Fargo scored touchdowns on every possession in the first half. It made a statement right away taking the kickoff and heading into the gale.
Mertz completed all four pass attempts on the way to the end zone, including a 13-yarder to Carter Birrenkott for the touchdown. Landon Pritchard’s PAT against a 40-mile-per-hour wind split the uprights but was blown backward and came up short.
The Mertz-to-Birrenkott connection struck again after the Packers forced a Demon three-and-out and Carson Hegerle returned a punt 40 yards to the Bismarck 27. Birrenkott made an easy catch after his defender fell down in the end zone.
“The key is to get a tight spiral and don’t try to do too much,” Mertz said. “Those plays set the tone for the whole game.”
Bismarck’s Isaiah Huus got untracked late in the quarter. He carried six times in an eight-play drive that covered 77 yards and ended with Huus’ 2-yard run with 11:14 left in the half to make it 13-7. Huus, who had 1,012 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season, was held to 96 yards on 18 carries. As a team, the Demons ran for just 127 yards and Kade Rohlfs was 4-for-19 for 125 yards.
The Packers scored again at the end of a 57-yard drive on Mertz’s 12-yard pass to Hegerle, and after a Birrenkott interception gave the Packers a short field, they scored on 5-yard Mertz run to go up 27-7 with 6:04 to play.
“We got manhandled,” Bismarck coach Mark Gibson said. “They whipped us in every phase of the game. It’s playoff time and you have to take your game to a different level and we didn’t. Congratulations to them.”
The Packers will next battle cross-town rival West Fargo Sheyenne at 7 p.m. at Sheyenne for a chance to get back to the Dakota Bowl. The Mustangs (9-1) posted a 21-6 victory over the Packers earlier this fall.