10/25/2012 9:57:00 AM Vikings advance in sections with late win
Jake Pilz stuffs GR’s Austin Wiberg in the backfield to force the Thunderhawks into a tough situation.
Brandon Thauwald lets out a scream after his game-sealing interception as Tony Benda mobs him from behind.
By JEFF NORTON
Benilde-St. Margaret’s 38, North Branch 7 Looking at match ups on paper, last week’s MEA week football game between North Branch and Benilde-St. Margaret’s figured to be a shootout. The Vikings came in averaging 28 points a game and Benilde 24. They had both played some similar opponents close, but in a different way. All the paper and stats went out the window, however, when the two teams sqaured off. North Branch received the opening kickoff and began their offensive march. The Vikes figured they were going to have to score a lot of points, so when the drive stalled just before midfield, it was already an early road bump. That road bump turned into a massive pothole when the Red Knights took over. On their second play from scrimmage, BSM junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud, who is among the state’s leaders for rushing yards from a quarterback, dashed and juked his way through the North Branch defense for a 75-yard touchdown run to put the Red Knights up 7-0. North Branch tried to answer back with their own rushing quarterback, Zack Sundly, who is also among the state leaders, but Benilde stacked the box with 10, sometimes all 11 defenders.
Sundly or fullback Rance Ashley had nowhere to maneuver. To try and break that stacked box, the Vikings went to the air a few times early. Twice they had a receiver open on a flare route down the sideline and both times, the ball fluttered not more than a foot out of the reach of the receiver. Both plays were likely touchdowns if they were completed, but they needed to be perfect routes and perfect throws and the Vikings just didn’t get that pinpoint execution. Meanwhile, the Benilde offense was humming along. Studsrud scored two more short touchdowns in the first half and Jack Backes added a 52-yard score and BSM was up 28-0 at halftime. North Branch had attempted their first field goal of the year when the score was 14-0, but Logan Klatt has the 36-yarder blocked as Benilde is flush with tall, lanky defenders. In the second half, North Branch still had trouble moving the ball effectively against the Red Knight defense. Their passes weren’t connecting and BSM just left 10 guys in the box to stuff the run. After the Red Knights had added 10 more points to their total to go up 38-0, North Branch’s Tony Denn finally got the Vikings on the board with a 43-yard touchdown run through the right side of the BSM defense. It was Denn’s third score in two weeks, but the only one North Branch could muster. The loss left North Branch at 3-5 on the season.
Their new section this year, Section 7AAAA, was calculated using minnesota-scores.net’s Quality Results Formula (QRF). Although North Branch actually had the second highest QRF in the section with a 47.0, there is a tiebreaker margin, which was 3.1 points. Cloquet, who was 5-3, had a QRF of 46.9 and Princeton, who was 4-4, had a QRF of 44.1. Because both of those schools were within the tiebreaker margin, they went to the tiebreak criteria, which is first head-to-head meeting and then overall record. Since North Branch didn’t play either of the teams, it went to overall record and North Branch was bumped from second down to fourth. The drop paired them against 1-7 Grand Rapids at home earlier this week for the first round of sections. There was a shot to play top-seeded Hermantown on the line. North Branch 27, Princeton 13 Despite a molasses like start on offense, North Branch overcame a first quarter deficit against Grand Rapids and beat them 27-13, moving into the section semi-finals and winning their first playoff game since 2003. The game started out disastarously for North Branch. After forcing the Thunderhawks into a third down on their first drive, they blew their containment on speedster Austin Wiberg and he raced untouched for a 73-yard touchdown before the Vikes could even touch the ball. Long touchdowns and big plays against have been an all-too-familiar hallmark for the North Branch defense this year, and it looked like this game might be the same. On North Branch’s first drive, they started a disturbing trend of sloppy play.
They moved the ball efficiently but slowly. They were grinding out yards four and five at a time, despite 10 and sometimes all 11 Grand Rapids defenders in the box. Shortly after moving into Thunderhawk territory, though, the Vikes faced a third and manageable one. But, the offense committed a false start penalty and put a stop to the drive short of a first down. As Grand Rapids took the field for the second time, the defense refused to be the scapegoat in the game. The Viking defense became went from a few guys trying arm tackles and getting drug around to a swarming sea of red and white. When Grand Rapids did gain chunks of yards, North Branch wouldn’t break, including a drive that the Thunderhawks had that went deep into North Branch territory. On first and 10 from North Branch’s 16, Grand Rapids committed a holding penalty and eventually Tony Denn, who is normally only an offensive player for the Vikings, stepped in front of an errant pass and picked it off to swing the momentum back to NB. However, the offense was unable to do anything with the defense’s stops for most of the first half. On their first five drives, they committed false start or illegal motion penalties on four of them, including on third and one and third and two, turning manageable downs into difficult situations. The potent offense that had averaged 28 points a game seemed to be shutting down and the most inopportune time. But, a gadget play turned all that around.
On a third and long nearing the end of the first half, the Vikings went back to their pitch pass, which has worked well this year. On this play, Sundly tossed the ball about to Denn, who immediately turned his eyes downfield. The senior found Jack Tholen behind the defense and they connected on the big pass play, moving North Branch into Grand Rapids territory. Sundly followed that up with a weaving run through the GR stacked box and bulled his way down inside the 20 yard line. With less than 30 seconds left in the half, Sundly found a bit of daylight on the right side of the line and went in for a seven-yard touchdown. The Logan Klatt extra point tied the game at 7-7 at halftime. Despite receiving the opening kickoff and having their halftime momentum, North Branch fumbled it right back to Grand Rapids as the offense continued to struggle. As a heavy fog began to settle on the field, the Thunderhawks made good on their first drive of the second half, using a short field to produce a three-yard touchdown run by Wiberg. The extra point was a mess from the beginning and never got more than a couple feet off the ground before it drilled a Thunderhawk offensive lineman. Rapids held a 13-7 lead. In typical 2012 Viking fashion, the offense finally awoke when the other team had scored points. North Branch finally didn’t make the mistakes that had plagued them all night and were able to hold onto the football en route to a short touchdown run by Rance Ashley.
Klatt made good on his extra point and North Branch had their first lead of the night at 14-13 midway through the third quarter. North Branch’s defense continued to craft one of their best games of the season when they produced another stop when Jake Pilz and Tony Benda teamed up for a big tackle for loss and the pass defense did the rest. The Vikings offense bypassed their plodding nature from the early parts of the game and found their way quickly to the endzone. Sundly found an opening on the right side of the Grand Rapids defense and raced nearly 70 yards down to the Thunderhawks 10 yard line. Ashley eventually capped the drive off with a one-yard touchdown run, his second of the game. On Klatt’s extra point attempt, the snap was high and the rhythm was off and the senior kicker booted it too low as a Grand Rapids defender got his hand on the ball and swatted it to the left of the field goal posts.
The Vikes still led 20-13 early in the fourth quarter. On Grand Rapids ensuing drive, the defense forced the Thunderhawks into a third and 10 in their own territory. The defense came up in a huge way again, and senior defensive tackle Ben Eastman chased down Grand Rapids quarterback Jackson Gessell for a 14-yard loss and forced them to punt again. The Vikings offense again answered the bell on their next drive, and again, it was Sundly who sparked them. This time, the quarterback went left for a big run and raced past the Grand Rapids defenders for a 64-yard gain down to Grand Rapids’ five-yard line It was a big moment for the Vikings offense, a touchdown would really put some distance between the two, but on a second down run, Sundly lost his helmet, which by rule requires him to come out for one play.
North Branch calmly went to backup quarterback Reid Johnson, who handed the ball off to the bruiser, Ashley, and the senior fullback scored his third short touchdown of the night. The Klatt point after stretched the lead to 27-13. Grand Rapids was able to put together two more drives, but neither was terribly dangerous. The first one ended with a turnover on downs in North Branch territory and the second one ended with a Brandon Thauwald interception. The win means North Branch will travel to Hermantown on Saturday, Oct. 27 to take on the top-seeded Hawks. Hermantown was 6-2 on the year and had a bye in the first round. The game is scheduled for 7:00.