10/22/2021 2:29:00 PM North Branch survives wild shootout with Hawks
North Branch knew they were in the meat of their schedule despite being 6-0 heading into their Friday night showdown with the Hermantown Hawks October 15. Three of NB’s toughest opponents were in the last four games of their slate, and they passed the first test two weeks ago with a win over Grand Rapids. But their next test awaited in the form of the Hawks, who were 4-2 heading into the game and have always been a thorn in NB’s side.
Senior quarterback Andrew Thauwald hooked up with junior tight end Adam Johnstone for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including the game winner, as North Branch had to play from behind all night before finally taking the lead and winning 50-42 in a rare northern Minnesota shootout.
The Vikings’ penchant for giving up the big play on defense reared its ugly head early in their match up with Hermantown.
On the first play from scrimmage, Hermantown threw a little swing pass out to the right and the running back did the rest, using some downfield blocking to race 62 yards to paydirt, essentially untouched.
North Branch did bust through the line of scrimmage to block the extra point, but just seconds into the game and Hermantown led 6-0.
A nice kick return by the Vikings set them up right at midfield for their first offensive drive. After converting a fourth down early in the drive, they started to move down the field a little bit, getting down to Hermantown’s 30 yard line.
But, as Thauwald dropped back to pass, a defensive back blitzed from his blindside and connected, stripping the ball while sacking the senior signal caller. The d-back also pounced on the loose ball for a huge play for Hermantown’s defense.
After a nice pass on second down set the Hawks up at North Branch’s 44 yard line, the big play — which was a killer for the Vikings in this game — popped up again. A jet sweep from left to right caught the North Branch defense off guard, and some nifty moves by the Hermantown back led to another long touchdown for the Hawks, this one of the 44 yard variety. The extra point was good and the Hawks were staked a pretty quick 13-0 lead, which was North Branch’s biggest deficit of the year. The Vikings got back to their bread and butter on the next drive. They fed one of the state’s top rushers in Ashton Labelle, and the senior responded, ripping off big gashes of yards. With the defense starting to key in on Labelle, Sam Sonnek and Sam Robillard both also chipped in some big runs on the drive.
It culminated in a Labelle touchdown on a stretch handoff to the left side. Labelle then took a pitch to the right side for a successful two point conversion, getting the Vikings back in the game at 13-8.
Not happy just trimming the lead, the Vikings followed up with a beautiful onside kick from senior kicker Tanner Bollman. Bollman pounded the ball off the ground right from the get go and it bounced perfectly over the heads of the Hermantown upbacks and the Vikings were easily able to run it down and recover it before the Hermantown returners could get to it.
“It’s not really a designed onside kick,” Head Coach Justin Voss said after the game. “We are more trying to pin the return team in the corner and Tanner does smash some off the ground at times for the big hop, and it was a great job by our kick team getting down there and recovering it.”
The offense capitalized on the opportunity and Thauwald got in on the running action, as they again ripped off big gains on the ground. The six play scoring drive was finished off by Labelle for his second score of the game and spanned 40 yards.
The two point conversion was no good, but NB retook the lead at 14-13.
On the next kickoff, the unthinkable happened. Bollman drilled another onside kick, this time a more traditional one and the soccer player executed it perfectly again with NB recovering after the ball went just 11 yards. Voss again said it wasn’t necessarily designed to be an onside kick but that Bollman just hit it perfectly to be recovered.
And again, the offense rewarded the onside kick. They moved the ball pretty swiftly down the field before Labelle made it a hat trick of touchdowns by taking another short handoff to the left and punching it in to the shell-shocked Hermantown defense. Thauwald tossed another two point conversion and North Branch had all of a sudden run off 22 straight points without the Hawk offense ever touching the ball.
On the ensuing kickoff, Hermantown had 10 of their 11 players within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage to make sure there were no more onside kicks. Bollman nailed one deep and put it in a perfect spot, but some nice moves by the H’Town returner still led the Hawks taking over near midfield.
The Viking defense got Hermantown into third-and-10 but they again allowed a big play to go to the house. A pretty innocent looking short pass to the left turned into a 49 yard touchdown when the Viking defense had some breakdowns in it. The speedy Hawk receiver raced past the defensive backs and scored a Hermantown touchdown. They kicked the extra point to trim the lead to 22-20.
North Branch’s offense was finally stymied on their next drive, but it was more self-inflicted. A holding call put them into a long second and 20 spot, and although they got down to fourth and short and they looked like they would go for it, a false start penalty set them back and they settled for a punt.
Field position just didn’t seem to matter to Hermantown, despite being short on time in the half. They opened the drive from their own 27 with an incomplete pass before taking a handoff right up the gut and breaking free for a 73 yard touchdown to retake the lead. The two point conversion was good for Hermantown, and they retook the lead at 28-22 just before halftime.
North Branch received the second half kickoff down by six, and they pounded away at the Hermantown defense, that was already starting to get gassed from the long first half. Thauwald had the highlight run of 25 yards bringing the ball inside the five yard line. The quarterback got to finish this drive off, scoring from nine yards out on a great move that left a Hermantown defender in the dust on his rear end. NB missed the two point conversion and the game was tied at 28-28.
With the Viking defense giving up big plays from all over the field, Voss elected for another onside kick, and although Bollman struck it well, the Hermantown team recovered this one, giving them good field position. Just a few plays later, the Hawks scored their shortest touchdown of the game, which was still a 37 yard score from the running back on a draw play.
The extra point was good and the Hawks led 35-28.
But, North Branch’s offense was running smoothly and they just kept taking it to the Hermantown defense. The one benefit of Hermantown scoring fast was that their defense had to get right back out on the field, and North Branch was able to take advantage of that. They took another long drive down the field and scored on a short Robillard touchdown to pull within one.
The Vikings hit their two point conversion with Labelle taking another sweep to the right side and that gave NB a 36-35 lead in the fourth quarter.
Although it sounds like a broken record, Hermantown’s offense just would not be denied from anywhere on the field. The Vikings kicked off deep this time, and the Hawks took over on their own 33. After a short run, their quarterback threw an absolute bomb that the wide receiver wrestled away from the North Branch defender and took to the endzone for a 64 yard score. The extra point put Hermantown up 42-36 early in the fourth quarter.
North Branch took over deep in their own territory but the long, grueling drives they’d been putting together clearly had taken a toll on the Hermantown defense. The Hawks couldn’t slow down the locomotive that was NB’s offense. They ripped off positive play after positive play and although they weren’t hitting the big runs, they were rarely in tough spots. If they did get to third down, it was just one or two yards to gain.
When Hermantown’s defense finally did make two stands to force a third and long, North Branch was already down to their 15 yard line. On that third and 11, Thauwald delivered an absolute beautiful throw to Johnstone in the front corner of the endzone. Johnstone was covered but Thauwald put it where only his receiver could bring it down and Johnstone made good on the over the shoulder catch to tie the game at 42-42.
The Vikes went back to the sweep that had been so effective, but this time, Labelle stopped in his tracks and threw a pass after receiving the pitch, but the Hawks had it defended well and knocked it down to keep the game tied.
On the ensuing kick off, Bollman kicked it deep, but Hermantown still returned it to the 40, and that set up the defense’s biggest drive of the night.
They finally got a stop on first and second down to force third and long. Hermantown ran a swing pass out to the right and Ryan Oday made a phenomenal play, fighting through a crack back block to make the tackle for a four yard loss, putting the Hawks into a fourth and 15 from their own 35.
“Despite the struggles in the game on the defensive side of the ball, every time the kids went out there, they believed they could get a stop,” Voss said. “They came through in a big way in the spot like they have all year.”
Although Hermantown had been scoring from all over the field and time was getting short, they made the puzzling decision to go for it in that tough spot. The quarterback had time to throw but sailed his pass over his receivers head, turning the ball over to NB in plus territory.
Labelle led off the drive with a five yard run. He then slipped on second and five for no gain. Thauwald then took a keeper down to the 27 yard line and put NB in a fourth and three situation, and it made much more sense for them to go for it.
In one of the biggest plays of the game, Thauwald kept the ball and weaved through the right side of the field and met resistance from two Hermantown defenders about a yard short of the first down marker. The senior fought off the defense and rolled over them down to the 24 yard line for a thrilling first down in front of his own sideline, who absolutely erupted for his effort and the result.
But the game was still tied and work had to be done. Thauwald took another keeper, this time 13 yards to the right and he absolutely bulldozed the tackler at the end of the run. It moved the ball down to the 12 yard line for NB. A short Labelle run got them to the five before they were stuffed for no gain and faced a third and five with only seconds left on the clock, and that’s where Thauwald showed his touch again. Everything in the ensuing play flowed to the right, but Johnstone, who had lined up as the tight end on the right side, worked his way left through the traffic. The Hermantown defender realized it at the last second and dropped off, but by then, Thauwald had dropped another perfect touch pass just over his head and Johnstone caught the ball and hung on, surviving a big hit as he went to the ground in the endzone with only six seconds left in the game. Labelle’s two pointer was good and NB led 50-42.
Hermantown received the kick but had no choice but try some laterals, and after one, the ball squirted free and North Branch jumped on it to seal the victory. By the end of the game, some of the state lines were ridiculous. Labelle had 33 carries for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Thauwald was two-for-two through the air for 20 yards and two scores and had 113 yards on a touchdown on 15 carries.
Robillard had 98 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, and the team had 415 rushing yards total.
“The offense was just on a roll and has been all year,” Voss explained. “There’s not a lot of margin for error when Hermantown is seemingly scoring every time they had the ball. We don’t do well in first and 20 or second and 13 so the focus and discipline it took to execute the offense for 72 plays was amazing. They really played well for us.” One of the more ridiculous stats you’ll ever see at any level were the amount of plays ran. Hermantown ran nine offensive plays in the first half and scored four touchdowns. It wasn’t different in the second half either. They ran only 12 plays and scored two touchdowns. In all, Hermantown ran 21 total offensive plays and scored six touchdowns. Meanwhile, North Branch’s offense ran 72 plays, keeping the ball for a ridiculous amount of time.
North Branch moved to 7-0 with the win and will undoubtedly move into th top five of the Class AAAA rankings. They came in at six and the fifth ranked team, Holy Angels Academy, lost.
Their final test of the regular season comes against a 4-3 Cloquet team who is still dangerous. The game was played on Wednesday, October 20 because of MEA break. Regardless of the outcome, North Branch should have the top seed in the Section 7AAAA wrapped up because every other team will have at least two losses.
The Vikings already have a first round bye securely locked up and don't play again until Saturday, October 30. Their first game will be against the winner of the Cloquet/Duluth Denfeld game on Tuesday, October 26.