9/28/2017 4:20:00 PM North Branch's high flying act stalled by stingy Cloquet
When North Branch received the opening kickoff and returned it to midfield against Cloquet last week during their homecoming game, there was an electricity in the air that hasn’t been felt in North Branch for 15 years.
The Vikings were 3-0 and ranked among the top teams in the state in Class AAAA. Cloquet had a similar resume, as they went to the state tournament last year and were undefeated this season heading into the game.
Cloquet’s defense did just enough to stifle North Branch’s potent offense, and they left enemy territory with a 32-28 victory, but it probably won’t be the last time these two teams see each other this season.
The Vikings started the game with a very uncharacteristic four and out after a 47 yard kick return by Darien Fair to start. Cloquet’s defense announced early that they were on a different level than Princeton, Hermantown and Duluth East, North Branch’s three previous opponents. The Lumberjacks offense, led by senior quarterback Tim Pokornowski, went to work from their own 38 yard line. They used a power run game to move deep into NB’s territory, and then the big gainer came when Pokornowski connected with Aahsan Maigag for a 23 yard connection from the 30 yard line. Spencer Wehr punched it in on the next play and after a blocked extra point, Cloquet had a 6-0 lead, and it was the first time North Branch had trailed all year.
On the next drive, North Branch committed the first of what would be multiple self-inflicted wounds that haunted them all game. They were putting together a trademark North Branch drive, gashing big chunks of yards from the Cloquet defense behind Tyler Adams and Thomas Wurdemann. The ‘Jacks were making it a point to pinch on dangerous quarterback Aaron Robillard, who is in the top 10 in the state in rushing. On second and 10 from Cloquet’s 42 yard line, Wurdemann took an inside handoff 14 yards down the field to set the Vikings up nicely, but the ball was punched out as he was going down, and Cloquet recovered, stalling NB’s drive.
Wurdemann, however, didn’t dwell on the mistake, as he had to also play on defense, and he made up for his fumble quickly. After Cloquet picked up one first down, Wurdemann stood Mitchell Gerlach up on a run and ripped the ball away from him as they went to the ground, the senior pounced on it, giving North Branch possession near midfield.
But, it was again a fruitless deep trip into Cloquet territory. After long back-to-back-to-back runs from Tyler Adams netted North Branch 30 yards, they had second and one from Cloquet’s 18 yard line. Robillard threw a deep pass incomplete on second down and Wurdemann was stopped for no gain on third down, setting North Branch up for a fourth and one. They tried to pitch the ball to Adams, but Hermantown’s defense was up to the task, stopping him six yards behind the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs.
North Branch’s defense bent on Cloquet’s next possession, but didn’t break, forcing a punt from the 39 yard line. After a yardage loss on third and one, the Vikings were facing a fourth and five from their own 30 and they sent the punting unit out. Cloquet suspected something and called a timeout. That didn’t stop NB from getting creative still, as they ran a fake punt from deep in their own territory. Robillard floated a pass down the sideline to Conner Hartmann, but it was just out of his reach and NB gave Cloquet a very short field to work. The Lumberjacks cashed in on that favor, scoring in five plays on a six yard run by Maigag.
The Vikings blocked their second extra point attempt, keeping the score at 12-0.
North Branch’s next drive ended on a Robillard interception, but the defense picked him up. Following two big penalties, Cloquet faced third and 19 from their own 18. They only picked up seven yards and were forced to punt, which was shanked and only traveled 20 yards. That set NB up with three minutes left in the half at Cloquet’s 45 yard line.
Robillard took over, running five straight times and picking up two first downs down to the 19. Adams, feeling fresh after struggling with the heat early, gained 14 yards on his next two runs, and the Vikings had a first and goal from the five yard line with just over a minute left in the half.
That’s when things got puzzling for the Vikings. After ripping off 40 yards in two minutes rushing, they threw on first and 10 and Fair caught the ball in the back of the endzone but couldn’t get a foot down in bounds. On second and goal, Adams was stuffed for a loss of four yards. On third and goal, Robillard threw an incomplete pass. That left the Vikes with fourth and goal from the nine and 14 seconds left in the half. They decided to run it with Wurdemann, who only gained three yards and was taken down well short of the end zone. That meant the Vikings had possessed the ball inside of Cloquet’s 30 yard line three times in the half and had zero points to show for it.
What’s worse is that Cloquet was set to receive the second half kickoff. Pokornowski and Wehr led the ‘Jacks down the field fairly easily, setting up a first and goal after five minutes of drive time. North Branch got a temporary reprieve when the Cloquet center snapped the ball over Pokornowski’s head, leaving the ‘Jacks with a fourth and goal from the 14 yard line, a tough conversion.
However, Josh Bushey got behind the North Branch defense on the fourth down play and caught a beautifully thrown ball from Pokornowski to put Cloquet up 18-0. Their extra point was clean, and they stretched the lead to 19-0.
The North Branch offense, which had all of halftime and half of the third quarter to cool down from the unseasonably warm temps, knew they had to go to work or lose the game.
They showed they were up to the task early when Robillard dashed for 13 yards on a third and 13 and then converted the fourth and one play just after. On the next play, Adams ran for 46 yards down to the Cloquet five yard line, a desperately-needed big play.
Robillard finished the drive off on the next play from five yards out, cutting into the lead. Adams two point conversion was good and it was 19-8.
But, Cloquet answered right back, with gains of 11 yards, 21 yards, nine yards and 10 yards en rout to a touchdown that stretched the lead to 26-8.
The Vikings put together an impressive return drive, using 11 plays and four minutes of clock time to score on a Robillard-to-Zach Pilz touchdown. Robillard’s two point conversion was no good and the score stood at 26-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Adams lined up to boot the ball away, but all night North Branch had used a combination of onside and pooch kicks to avoid Cloquet’s dangerous return game. On this kickoff, Adams aimed the ball at the Cloquet upman who was 10 yards away from him and kicked it as hard as he could. It bounced off the Cloquet player hard and settled right back into the arms of Adams as North Branch got the ball back quickly. Robillard did all the heavy lifting, rushing five times for 40 yards on the drive and setting North Branch up with a third and two from Cloquet’s three when a bizarre play happened.
Wurdemann received a handoff near the goal line, but as he was hit, the ball squirted out into the end zone. North Branch standout offensive lineman Cam Irvin was in the scrum trying to push his teammate into the endzone and saw the ball pop out. He pounced on it for what is every offensive lineman’s dream, a touchdown.
The two point conversion was no good again and North Branch trailed by just one score, 26-20 with seven minutes left in the game.
Cloquet was a bit more prepared for the kickoff this time, and weaved the pooch kick all the way up to midfield.
Cloquet then took advantage of a tired North Branch defense and marched down the field for a touchdown after taking four minutes off the clock, all but sealing the game at 32-20 with just three and a half minutes left.
Of course, North Branch’s offense wasn’t going to go quietly. Adams ripped off a 14 yard run that had a 15 yard facemask penalty tacked on to it, and on the very next play, Fair got behind his defender and Robillard found him for a 38 yard touchdown pass. The two play scoring drive took only 30 seconds off the clock and trimmed the lead back to one score at 32-28 with three minutes left. The Vikings also possessed all three of their timeouts, so they were counting on their defense to step up if they couldn’t recover the onside kick.
Adams lined up for the boot, but he didn’t quite connect hard enough with the ball and it only rolled seven yards before falling still. The ‘Jacks took over at midfield for the drive of the game. Wehr was stuffed for a two yard loss on the first play from scrimmage and NB used their first timeout. But, Maigag got that yardage and more back on a second down run of nine yards. On third and three, Mitchell Gerlach took a run up the middle for eight yards, in what should have been the game-sealing play. Cloquet still had to run a few plays, but it was mostly academic.
Maigag rushed for two yards on first down and North Branch called their second timeout with 1:36 left. Two more rushes would’ve left North Branch with roughly 20 seconds left in the game deep in their own territory, but Pokornowski committed the cardinal sin in football on second down. He didn’t secure the ball and the desperate Viking defense ripped it loose. It was recovered by North Branch’s Colton Bauer with a minute and a half left, setting the offense up for potential dramatics.
Robillard started the tense drive with a 10 yard run, but it was called back after a holding penalty, a crushing blow for the Vikes.
On first and 14, Adams gained five yards on the ground and on second and nine, Robillard hit Hunzicker for just two yards, setting up a third and seven. North Branch called their last timeout to stop the clock and draw up a big play, but it didn’t work out as Robillard threw an incomplete pass. On fourth down, a desperation pass from Robillard to Fair bounced just before getting the receiver, giving Cloquet the ball back with just 34 seconds left. A Pokornowski kneel down ended the thrilling game 32-28 in favor of the Lumberjacks.
The game very well could be a preview of a future playoff match up. The teams are both members of Section 7AAAA and both had unblemished records in the section coming into the game. There’s still four games to be played in the regular season, but the Vikings and Lumberjacks should be prohibitive favorites in all of them.
Across the board, the game stats reflected the close score. North Branch outgained Cloquet 398-367, and they were within 20 yards of each other in rushing offense. Both teams turned the ball over twice, and they were within one minute of each other in time of possession.
The deciding factor was North Branch’s three scoreless deep drives in the first half. If any of those drives are finished, the outcome is different. North Branch will look to bounce back in a big way next week against Hibbing. The Bluejackets are just 1-3 on the season and their one victory was over the Class AA Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears. The Jackets have gone on to be outscored 110-13 in their previous three games. Kickoff will be at 7 p.m. in Hibbing and the temperatures should be a far cry from the 90 degree kick off last week.