|10/8/2021 3:12:00 PM|
North Branch passes major test with 21-20 win over T'Hawks
Homecoming week is always a special one for students, and especially so for the football team, which is the main event on Friday nights after parades and all the pomp and circumstance.
This homecoming was even more special for the North Branch football squad. They are off to a 4-0 start and ranked number eight in the state in Class AAAA and they were welcoming their toughest test to date to the their home field, the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks, who were 3-1 on the season.
The brisk kickoff Friday, October 1 went to Rapids to start the game. The Thunderhawks put together a nice return to start their drive at North Branch’s 45 yard line. After five plays, the Hawks had moved all the way down to North Branch’s nine yard line and looked to be threatening to open the scoring.
But on third and two, the Grand Rapids quarterback botched the handoff with his running back and the ball squirted downfield towards the end zone after it was kicked, and a North Branch defender pounced on it for a touchback and they skirted the GR danger.
The Vikings then proceeded to put together a near perfect drive. They went 75 yards in seven plays, never seeing a third down. It was highlighted by a tough 18 yard run by Ashton LaBelle, chunk gains from Sam Robillard and Sam Sonnek and a 33 yard score by quarterback Andrew Thauwald, who absolutely fooled the Grand Rapids defense on a fake and ran untouched up the right side of the field for the opening touchdown. No GR defender was within 15 yards of Thauwald when he scored and a few North Branch blockers didn’t have anyone to even get in the way of.
North Branch’s two point conversion was no good, and the Vikings led 6-0.
Grand Rapids showed why they are 3-1 though. On the second play on the next drive, the Hawk quarterback pulled an equally impressive fake that left a few North Branch defenders completely out of place as he raced past them for a 64 yard touchdown run, to draw even. GR’s extra point was good, and they went up 7-6.
North Branch loves to run a reverse play on their kick returns. Sometimes they hand it off, and sometimes they don’t. They are trying to keep the return team on their toes, but it went terribly wrong on this return, with them fumbling the reverse attempt. They were able to get on the ball, but it was down at their own one yard line.
They did get out of the shadow of their own endzone, but eventually had to punt from their own 30 yard on a fourth and seven.
Grand Rapids continued to build on momentum after that. They eventually faced a third and 11 on NB’s 44 yard line and decided to run the ball, which would be a give up most of the time on that down and distance. But, they ran a funky double dive play where they faked a hand off up the middle and suck all the defenders in; but then hand the ball off in the same spot just behind him. It worked to perfection against the Vikings, and the play went for 42 yards down to NB’s two yard line. Grand Rapids would score three plays later and to take a 13-6 lead. The extra point was blocked and it kept NB within striking distance.
As they have so often this year when something goes wrong, North Branch answered the bell on offense on their next drive.
It was a patented North Branch-under-Justin Voss drive. The coach who loves to run the ball called 10 rushes on the next drive, including big gains from Thauwald and LaBelle.
The biggest play, though, came through the air. The Vikings had moved the ball all the way down inside GR’s 10 yard line, but faced a third and goal from the eight. Thauwald dropped back to pass and was about to hit an open Adam Johnstone for a touchdown, but the Thunderhawk defender interfered with him, giving NB new life. A few plays later, Thauwald snuck his second touchdown in for North Branch. Grand Rapids stuffed the two pointer, so NB remained down by one at 14-13.
After a stalled drive, the game went into halftime with NB down by one. But they would come out of the break with a great drive that again emphasized their run heavy attack.
Eleven rushes into the drive and NB was down to the Grand Rapids 12 yard line, but faced a fourth and goal that seemed pretty tough to convert. Voss sent out his field goal team for the first time this year and dual athlete Tanner Bollman lined up for the 29 yard field goal attempt. He split the uprights and nailed it, giving NB a 15-13 lead.
“There was great blocking on the kick and a great hold,” Voss said. “And it took excellent concentration on the kick from Tanner. It was such a game changer for us.”
Grand Rapids kept coming on offense, though. They started their next drive with a 14 yard run to get into NB territory, and three plays later, their running back went 39 yards to paydirt to reclaim the lead for GR.
In what was a head-scratching decision at the time, and even more so in hindsight, the Grand Rapids coach decided to kick an extra point. It was successful to put Rapids up 20-15, but it only gave them the five point cushion. In football, there is literally no difference between a four and five point lead late in the game. A field goal can’t catch either and a touchdown trumps both, regardless of extra point.
North Branch still had work to do, though, down in the fourth quarer to the tough Thunderhawks. But, the offense continued to shine for this squad. A Thauwald 31 yard run kicked the drive off and bruising Robillard run of 18 yards put North Branch inside of Grand Rapids’ 10 yard line.
On third and goal from the five, LaBelle scored his first touchdown of the game to put NB up 21-20 after Sonnek’s two point conversion attempt came up just short.
With time winding down, NB needed its defense to step up in a big spot. Grand Rapids moved the ball early in the drive, getting down to North Branch’s 34 yard line, but that’s when the ‘D’ came up huge for NB.
On a busted pass play that barely got past the line of scrimmage, GR got called for a holding penalthy, putting them into first and 20. LaBelle then made his presence felt on defense, knifing through the offensive line to sack the Hawks’ QB for a six yard loss.
On third-and-26, Grand Rapids was forced to go to the air and with LaBelle pressuring again, the Hawk QB chucked up a desperation pass and senior Nathan Franklin picked it off for a huge NB turnover. The offense trotted out on to the field with just over a few minutes left in the game and three first downs later, they were able to kneel the clock out in victory formation to hang on to the 21-20 homecoming triumph.
The run game was again firing for NB. When their whole backfield is clicking, there won’t be many teams in the section that can slow them down.
LaBelle had 159 yards and a score on 21 carries. Thauwald had 80 yards and two scores on 12 carries and Robillard toted the rock 11 times for 64 hard-earned yards. Loghan Croal has the ability to break big gains, Ryan Oday has also had moments this year, and Sam Sonnek earns tough yards on his carries. The offensive line is blocking great and the backs come at opponents in waves, and it’s been very effective.
The Vikings will face the 0-5 Hunters of Duluth Denfeld. They have been blown- out in almost every game this year and have struggled to put together competitive stretches.
The game will be on Friday, October 8 in Duluth at 7 p.m.