WAUNAKEE — Pat Rice put great thought into making the change.
After all, the Waunakee football team had considerable success over the years and it wasn’t as if the Warriors’ longtime coach believed his team’s multiple Pro-I offense was broken.
But last December, Rice and his staff talked and decided to shift to a spread offense.
“It was a personnel decision,” Rice said this week during a break in preparation for the undefeated Warriors’ third-round WIAA Division 2 playoff game against Hartford on Friday in Waunakee.
“We wanted to stretch the field and play different personnel groups to get our playmakers in space. It taxes the defense to have to compartmentalize some things. … Our other offense was 260-40 (as an overall record). I made the decision; I just felt it was a way to feature our offense. You try to be in front of the curve.”
Warriors running back Javian Dayne, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior, acknowledged he wasn’t enamored with the idea that a new offense was on the way.
After all, he was the Badger North Conference Offensive Player of the Year last season, earned honorable mention recognition on the coaches’ All-State team and was a first-team choice on the Wisconsin State Journal/WisconsinPrepZone.com All-Area team.
But Dayne — son of Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, the former University of Wisconsin and NFL running back — has embraced the new attack.
“At first, I didn’t even want that,” Dayne said. “I’m a downhill kind of runner. I thought the I-formation was perfect for us. Even though we switched to the Pistol (formation during games) last year, I thought that was good because I was still behind the quarterback. But this offense has become my favorite offense.
“I like it because of the zone reading. Instead of having to go in ‘this hole’ to score, I like the decision-making process.”
The results have been impressive for Dayne, who believes his development as a runner has improved in the new system, and for the Warriors, whose offense is propelled by an outstanding offensive line and balanced between the run led by Dayne and 5-11, 208-pound senior L.O. Johnson and the pass led by senior quarterback Nate Carter.
Rice added two coaches who had familiarity with the spread — offensive coordinator Andy Rice, who’s his cousin, and offensive line coach Jared Acker — because he didn’t want trial and error with a new offense.
“We didn’t want to probe and make first-year mistakes,” Pat Rice said. “We wanted to install it with the idea of hitting the ground running. The addition of some people who had familiarity in that system has really helped accelerate things. The staff has done a nice job.”
The spread gave the coaches more flexibility in play-calling and forced foes to lighten the box, which became stacked in past years to stop the run.
“It’s been great,” Rice said. “The kids have embraced it. It’s exciting. It’s fast-paced. We are attack-oriented. It fits what we like to do. We like to attack. And it gets our players on the field.”
Dayne has rushed for 1,778 yards and 26 touchdowns for Badger North Conference champion Waunakee (11-0), which entered postseason ranked No. 1 in Division 2 by WisSports.net and No. 2 among large-sized schools in The Associated Press poll. Dayne, who said he has one offer for football from Minnesota State-Mankato, has averaged 161.6 yards per game and 8.5 yards per carry.
Dayne and Carter were named the 2017 Badger North Co-Offensive Players of the Year.
Carter has completed 99 of 150 passes — 66 percent — for 1,647 yards and 21 touchdowns, with six interceptions. Carter’s top targets have included senior tight end Luke Laufenberg and senior receiver Riley Zuhde, both first-team all-conference performers.
“I believe I was more of a power back the past couple years,” Dayne said. “Now I’ve become more of a balanced running back, so, I’m doing a variety of things, which I think is cool. (In the past), I didn’t hit any, we call them home runs — long touchdown runs. Maybe a 30-yard run was my biggest run. Now we are constantly hitting home runs. Our line is making bigger holes. It’s amazing.”
Dayne has been complemented in the backfield by Johnson, who has scored 10 touchdowns rushing while averaging 67.2 yards a game and 7.1 yards a carry. Johnson, the son of former UW and NFL cornerback Lawrence Johnson, won the WIAA Division 1 100 meters at last June’s state track and field meet.
The top-seeded Warriors’ dynamic backfield duo sparked a nickname debate. Dayne didn’t like the “Thunder and Lightning” moniker given to the pair, saying he thought that labeled him only as a power back and Johnson only as a speed back. Dayne said he prefers “Fire and Ice.”
“I’m ‘Ice,’ ” Dayne said. “I didn’t want ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ Even my dad said it didn’t work out for him and Tiki Barber (as teammates in the NFL). He really hated the name ‘Thunder.’ I don’t like it, either.”
Javian Dayne said he appreciates his father’s approach with him. He said Ron Dayne doesn’t overload him with advice, primarily giving tips about details, such as ball security.
“No, just like minor fundamentals — like ‘high and tight,’ ” Javian Dayne said. “He’ll never teach me how to run. He usually stays out of the way. He just acts like a dad, a fan That is a better way.”
Waunakee’s success – the Warriors have outscored opponents 570-55 this season — clearly is a team effort, if the all-conference team is any indication.
Waunakee had 10 of the 14 first-team all-conference players on offense — including offensive linemen Spencer Nellis (who was the offensive lineman of the year), Al Olkowski, Brandon Kaminski and Gabe Zander — and eight of the 14 first-team all-league players on defense —including the defensive player of the year, senior defensive back Lucas Statz, and the defensive lineman of the year, senior Nolan Thole.
“The unsung thing about this has been our defense,” said Rice, whose team has recorded five shutouts. “Our defense has been lights out.”
The Warriors have “done a great job of staying in the moment,” Rice said. That means focusing on the game at hand and not looking ahead to the ultimate destination — the Division 2 title game.
“They are very motivated in terms of football,” Rice said. “They are high-IQ football guys who just love playing, so that’s been great. And our leadership has been great. So, the whole season has been fun.”