|10/30/2020 3:17:00 PM|
WINNING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND
Special teams set the tone in North Branch's 46-0 romp over Hibbing
Blocking a punt is not the easiest thing to do a in a football game. It takes perfect timing, usually a lapse in the blockers form, and a slow delivery from the punter.
So when North Branch’s special teams started the game against Hibbing with two straight blocked punts, including one that was unbelievably caught during the block and returned for a touchdown, the Vikings knew it was going to be a big night.
Amidst a literal snowstorm in Hibbing, North Branch made the trek north to the Iron Range on Friday, October 23 to put their 1-1 record on the line against a winless Bluejacket squad. “We were a bit surprised when we got there to see the amount of snow on the field,” Head Coach Justin Voss said. “But the guys were so excited when they did see it. It’s something new, different and exciting. It kind of ads to that memory. A historic field in northern Minnesota just covered in five inches of snow. That long bus ride up can get you in a funk sometimes, but that snow gave us an extra spark and level of energy to start the game. We probably don’t want to play in that every week, but it was definitely a fun memory.”
Hibbing started with the ball and after a fruitless three plays was forced to punt. With about three to four inches of snow on the ground, long snapping was going to be a bit difficult, as was getting off effective punts. North Branch’s Gavyn Jensen-Schneider made sure of that on the attempt. He broke through the left side of the line and the upback was a little late getting to block him and Jensen-Schneider skied in the air as the punter was getting the kick off to block it.
In an incredible display of athleticism and hand-eye coordination, Jensen-Scheider essentially caught the punt just a foot or two off the foot of the punter, which is incredibly hard to do, and took off to the end zone untouched for NB’s first touchdown of the game.
Ryan O’Day converted the two-pointer to put NB up 8-0 before their offense ever touched the field.
Another stout defensive effort, led by a phenomenal third down tackle for loss by Adam Johnstone, resulted in another three and out for the Jackets. “ Adam has been an active learner for us,” Voss said a week after the sophomore had a pick six. “He’s always asking questions and we’re coaching him up and it’s fun to see him take our input and put it into action on Fridays. It’s hard to translate learning opportunities into plays on the field, but he’s doing that. It’s very cool and very mature of him.”
Hibbing lined up to punt, and again, the special teams of North Branch lit them up.
Jensen-Schneider again split the line right down the middle, with Caleb Norwig playing an important part taking his blocker the other way. The upback did get the Jensen-Schneider in time, but with his athleticism, he just leapt over the top of him and blocked the punt again. The ball squirted to the left and an NB defender slipped trying to scoop and score, but it still was a sudden change in possession for the Vikings.
North Branch’s offense didn’t capitalize on the turnover, however. They had a nice first down run before getting stuffed on second and third down. On fourth down, Andrew Thauwald’s pass attempt sailed out of the back of the endzone, resulting in a turnover on downs.
“Special teams is so focused on small things that can be huge and very valuable to us,” Voss said. “Special teams can give us the upper hands in games, especially ones that will be more competitive. Sean Huset runs that unit and preaches the importance and makes sure our special teams time in practice is put to good use. We’re relying on that unit to create big plays and we’re excited to see who will step up next week.”
After NB’s turnover on downs, Hibbing’s offense did nothing, losing three yards on their three plays and being forced to punt again. They did get the kick off this time from their own endzone, but a nice return set up North Branch with great field position again.
After two good Thauwald runs, North Branch scored on a short touchdown run to extend their lead to 14-0, and they tacked on two more with the conversion.
Hibbing’s offense came out for their fourth drive looking to pass. They had eight yards rushing on seven carries at that point, so they needed to change it up. But, the air game wasn’t working either with the NB defense up to the task. The first two passes were rushed with NB pressure, and the third one was nearly picked off by Jensen-Schneider, who had the ball bounce off his hands.
On the next drive, North Branch’s running game kept churning out positive plays. Although they didn’t break off the big play score, they methodically moved down the field, converting a couple third downs and fourth downs en route to a short touchdown run by Ashton LaBelle. The two point conversion was no good and NB led 22-0.
Again, the Bluejackets went to the air on offense, and they again failed to move the ball effectively, almost throwing another interception by a Viking defender on third down.
The Vikings almost struck for a touchdown in an instant on their next drive, but a long run ended in a fumble, killing the drive quickly.
LaBelle broke through the left side of the line and had nothing but white snow in front of him on what was going to be a 72-yard touchdown run, but a Hibbing defender had the angle on him and tracked him down, swiping at the ball as he caught him. The punch out worked and the ball popped out and was recovered by Hibbing.
But, as had been the case all night, the Jackets didn’t do anything on offense with the opportunity, going three and out. North Branch’s last drive of the first half ran out of time as they protected their big lead.
In the second half, North Branch went right back on the attack on offense and ran all over Hibbing to start. They finished the drive with a LaBelle touchdown and a Derrick Witte two-point conversion to go up 38-0.
The North Branch defense wouldn’t budge, though. On Hibbing’s next possession, they finally completed a pass to bring up a short fourth down attempt, but the defensive line stuffed the Jacket quarterback on his sneak attempt and turned the ball over on downs.
North Branch didn’t skip a beat, taking the ball down the field in a hurry on the ground. They ripped off chunk yards, and got a big play from Nate Skiba before scoring a short touchdown to extend the lead. The two point conversion was good again and NB led 46-0.
Hibbing finally got the ball moving in the fourth quarter as North Branch brought in their back up defenders. They had a nice catch and run and a 10 yard run up the middle, and ripped off some outside chunk gains as well. They moved down into the North Branch redzone.
But, the drive stalled when North Branch’s Jay Kramer got a big sack on second down. That put Hibbing behind the chains and the defense knew they would be throwing. The defensive line got heavy pressure on the QB, and he was forced to throw quickly, which a North Branch defensive back picked off, preserving the shutout they barely missed last week against Proctor.
“Our defense has played really aggressive the past two weeks. We’re playing fast up front and our defensive backs are being disciplined. That’s our brand of football,” Voss said. “We’re getting hats to the football and that allows us to not have plays go for any extra yards. Strong leadership on defense is allowing us to be aligned correct and make plays. We do have some times where we are over-aggressive, but I’m OK with that rather than being hesitant.”
The level of competition steps up dramatically this week, with a home game against Grand Rapids on Friday, October 30 at 4 p.m. The Thunderhawks are 3-0 and have won three straight blowouts. “We need to be in good spots on offense and we need to challenge our guys mentally and physically in practice,” Voss said. “Grand Rapids is a very tough team.”