October 8, 2009 at 8:43 a.m.
With the Tigers sporting an 0-4 record, it seemed to be the perfect recipe for the Vikes to snap their three-game losing skid and get back into the win column. But, what NB got was a fired up Princeton team on their biggest Friday of the year and a long trip home after a 12-7 defeat.
After an exciting start to the game on offense, North Branch stalled often and never scored another point.
On their first drive of the game, the Vikings were stopped cold at midfield and looked as if they were going to give the ball back to Princeton when they lined up in punt formation on fourth-and-two. However, the Vikings have the luxury of their star running back, Zack Smith, also handling their punting duties. Smith saw a crack in Princeton's punt return formation and as soon as he got the ball, he took off and scampered for a big gain and a fresh set of downs for the Vikes. "I wish I could say I called the fake punt," Head Coach Justin Sawyer said. "But that was all Zack Smith feeling backside pressure and seeing an opening to make a big play."
That big play led to another when quarterback Scott Bossard hooked up with Sean Franks on an acrobatic, bobbling 24-yard catch to put the ball inside the 10-yard line of the Tigers.
Princeton was still reeling as North Branch had added a new wrinkle into their game plan for this week. They went no-huddle for the first drive, and it kept the Tigers guessing.
A few plays later, Smith pounded the ball into the end zone for a 6-0 lead. A Brian Grand extra-point capped off the scoring for North Branch as they enjoyed an early 7-0 lead and had already deflated the Princeton crowd with their playmaking abilities.
The drive took a toll, however, as lineman Alex Reed went down with a knee injury that kept him out of the rest of the game. Coupled with an already depleted line that was missing a starter due to sickness, the Vikings were digging deep on their offensive line depth chart.
The NB defense played their part in shutting down Princeton's offense for the first 20 minutes of the game. At the end of the first half, with North Branch still ahead by one score, Princeton mixed some big runs, some untimely penalties by North Branch and some big plays to march down deep into Viking territory. Princeton had the ball on first down at North Branch's eight-yard line, but a big loss on first down and two broken plays on second and third down led Princeton to a fourth-and-goal from the 13 with time winding down in the half.
Without a reliable kicker, the Tigers kept their offense out on the field to go for the touchdown. Princeton's quarterback dropped back for a pass and lofted one to the back of the end zone, and it looked like the ball might just get down to the receiver to even the game. But, a strafing North Branch defender jumped in and swatted the ball down, ending the Tigers threat, and preserving the 7-0 lead for halftime.
After a quarter of jockeying for position, the Vikings 'D' had to come up huge again at the end of the third quarter.
The Tigers were knocking on the door again from inside the Vikings' 10-yard line, but another stand resulted in the score remaining the same.
Fresh off the big fourth-down stop, Bossard connected with Luke LeVasseur for a big gain down the North Branch sideline. It looked like the Vikings might be aiming in on a kill shot. But, a subsequent fumble dashed the Vikings' hope of extending their lead to two scores.
Princeton took over and quickly moved within scoring range. Dropping back to pass, the Princeton signal caller spotted his receiver open on a quick slant and hit him between the numbers for their first touchdown of the game.
The Tigers had to go for the two point conversion since their kicker, who is also their running back, was injured earlier in the drive. They went back to the air, but a Sean Graff pick in the end zone left the Vikings clinging to a 7-6 lead in the fourth quarter.
Like they had for the majority of the game after that first drive, the Vikings offense struggled to gain traction. Their running game was being disrupted in the backfield by the Princeton lineman, and when they were forced to throw the ball, they were inconsistent throughout the game.
When Princeton took control of the ball in North Branch's territory after a poor punt, the defense needed to step up again. Although the Tigers moved the ball down to the goal line, the Vikings stood tall on the first three downs, forcing a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line.
On the deciding down, Princeton was finally able to break through the linebacking and lineman corps for a touchdown to take a 12-7 lead. Another missed two-point conversion left the game at that score with the Vikings taking over after the kickoff.
Just like they did against Columbia Heights, North Branch started to move the ball consistently down the field in the deciding drive.
Accurate passes from Bossard and punishing runs by Smith led the red-and-white march down the field. After getting to the Tigers' 35 yard line, Bossard took a long shot at the end zone on third down. Franks was awaiting the pass in the end zone until a Princeton defender shoved him out of the way before the ball arrived. Pass interference was called, but the Vikings still had to move the ball 20 more yards to score the winning touchdown.
With the seconds ticking away, North Branch had to stay in the air. Although they had three shots at the end zone, all three fell to the wayside as Princeton prevented the Vikings from entering the end zone.
After taking over on downs, Princeton took two kneel downs to seal their homecoming win.
"We were just inconsistent on both sides of the ball," Sawyer explained after the game. "We had blown coverages, missed blocking assignments and missed tackles. We also had costly penalties -- although only four -- they were all crucial."
Besides the loss being tough mentally, it was a physically demanding game as well, as Sawyer said a few guys went down with injuries during the game. They aren't sure who will be ready to go by this weeks game at Benilde-St. Margaret's.
The first-year head coach goes back to the basics for the root of the Vikings' problems on both sides of the ball. "It's just a simple lack of execution," he said.
The Vikings have a tough task ahead of them to get back to their winning ways. Benilde-St. Margaret's sports a 3-2 record and just got done thrashing St. Louis Park 48-19 last week. They thrive on the big play with a talented senior quarterback in Ben Krebsbach, who is among the state's leaders in passing in Class 4A. "We have to make them make mistakes," Sawyer said. "We have to make them work to get downfield."