September 30, 2010 at 10:27 a.m.
When the defense is stout and provides pressure, the offense can't seem to earn a first down.
So has been the season of a team that was 0-3, with the losses coming by a combined 12 points. But, North Branch had yet to put together a complete game, or for that matter, a game where they didn't do anything right. Last Friday was that night.
The Vikings were back on the road -- they only have three home games this year -- and this week, they traveled to Barbara A. Lehman Stadium at Robbinsdale Cooper on a windy, cool Friday night.
After Cooper took the opening kickoff just a hair into North Branch territory at the 49 yard line, things went south quickly for North Branch. Cooper's senior running back Keith Anthony weaved and dodged his way through the North Branch defense for a quick, 49-yard touchdown run that left North Branch reeling. Anthony capped off the drive with a successful two-point conversion run, and the Hawks were ahead 8-0 before some people had even checked into the stadium.
A North Branch three-and-out didn't do the defense any favors, as they had to come right back out after a stalled offensive drive. Anthony and Cooper sophomore quarterback Brennan Macon shredded the North Branch defense again, moving down the field with ease using a good mix of rushing and passing. The Hawks finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge on a quarterback keeper by Macon. A Max Murphy extra point stretched the lead to 15-0.
Before North Branch could go out to receive the kick, Head Coach Justin Sawyer pulled the whole team together to give them a tongue lashing. It was only a few minutes into the game, and North Branch was already down two scores to a 1-2 team that they defeated last year.
North Branch responded with one of their typical drives. A long, grinding drive that steamrolled the defense. Quarterback Scott Bossard ran over defenders while tailback Zack Smith ran around them. The Vikings finally punched the ball into the endzone with a 10-yard touchdown run by Smith. The senior followed that up with a two-point conversion run that narrowed the lead to seven points at 15-8.
With some life shown from their offense, the Viking defense put up a rousing effort on their next drive. They sent Cooper nowhere but back, and the Hawks had to punt on a fourth-and-11 after two negative yardage plays and a dump-off.
North Branch started another drive, and were looking to tie the game before halftime. They moved down the field rather effortlessly, and looked to be in prime position to at least cut into the lead. However, a frantic chain of events to end the half altered the rest of the game.
With only 23 seconds left in the half and no timeouts, North Branch went for it on third down from the eight. They fell short of the endzone, but had enough time to regroup at the line and have a play called.
Bossard snapped the ball right as the whistle was blown. Most players on the field, including Bossard, thought the whistle was dead ball. Bossard even went as far as to stop in his track and turn his back to the denfese and look at the ref. With no signal that the play was over, Bossard quickly adjusted, looked to the corner of the end zone and found Smith for a touchdown.
But, a flag was thrown, as Forest Huset, the receiver on the opposite side of the field, hadn't been set long enough. The penalty took the touchdown away, but the clock still had six seconds on it, and North Branch still had a shot on fourth down.
Bossard dropped back to pass on the down, but couldn't find an open receiver. As he rolled to his right, pressure came from the backside and Bossard just tossed the ball towards the endzone, hoping a Viking could come up with it at best, figuring it'd be a touchback and the end of the half at worse if Cooper picked it off.
However, it got a lot worse than that, the ball fell into the lap of Billy Kellogg, who caught the ball in stride and had a wide open lane to break through. Kellogg took off, and it was off to the races, as nobody from North Branch could catch him.
The ensuing extra point missed, but the momentum swing was massive. North Branch went from nearly being tied with Cooper to trailing by two scores again.
"Once again we had our chances and did not take advantage of them," Sawyer said. "Specifically, at the end of the first half when we were inside the five yard line and ended up turning the ball over with Cooper taking it all the way back."
In the second half, North Branch's defense was able to keep Cooper off the board for the most part, but a lot of it was self-inflicted wounds by Cooper, as they committed penalty after penalty.
Although the North Branch offense was moving the ball fairly well, they kept stalling when it mattered most. The key swing in the second half came late in the third quarter. North Branch drove to Cooper's 30 yard line, but faced a fourth and long. Too far away to kick a field goal, but too close to punt it, North Branch went to the air. Bossard found a wide open Huset at about the three yard line, but floated the ball a little too much, allowing the Cooper defender to recover and get back to Huset. Although the defender committed pass interference in the process, it was the best penalty Cooper took all night, as it took a sure touchdown away from North Branch. The Vikings floundered the rest of the drive, and ended up turning the ball over on downs without scoring a point.
However, with the Vikings defense beginning to flourish, the offense was afforded extra opportunities, and they finally took advantage of it. They started their fourth quarter drive near midfield, and went to Bossard's arm for the key plays. He hit Huset and fellow senior David Leason for key first downs, and then topped the drive off with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Huset for the score. A Tony Ceroll kick made the game 21-15, and within reach for North Branch.
Much like the rest of the season, though, the defense followed that score up by struggling to contain Cooper. They were ripping off big gains on the ground and methodically moving the ball through the air.
It looked as though the North Branch defense might go to the old addage of 'bend but don't break' when they forced a fourth and long by Cooper at the 19-yard line. But, Tevin Wooten, generously listed at 5'8" in the program, out jumped a North Branch defender in the front of the end zone to secure a 19-yard touchdown catch and a near certain victory for Cooper.
Trailing by two scores, North Branch was forced into the uncomfortable spot of throwing every down, and because it was so predictable, it didn't work out very well for them, and they went down without much of a threat the rest of the way.
"Overall our offensive line played well, giving good pass protection and producing some holes to run through," Sawyer explained after the team's fourth straight tough defeat. "It was our missed tackles, dropped passes, errant passes and fumbles that really hurt us. As a team this was probably our worst performance of the season."
Bossard led the way rushing, gaining 92 yards on 20 carries. Although he threw for 66 yards and a touchdown, he was only seven-of-20 on completions and he threw two picks. Smith had 80 yards on 22 carries and added four tackles on defense.
Despite the 0-4 record, North Branch isn't far off from where they want to be. The four games have been decided by 24 total points, or less than a touchdown per game, and the combined record of the four teams is 9-7, so they haven't all pushovers. "We are so close to things clicking and falling into place, we just need to put it all together," Sawyer said.
North Branch again travels down 35 and across 694, going to Columbia Heights on Friday night at 7. The Hylanders have struggled the past few years, going 3-20 over the past two and a half years, including a 1-3 mark this year. Their lone win of the year came against Rockford, a school of about 400 students about an hour west of the Twin Cities. Since that season opening win, Heights has been out-scored 122-21 by Irondale, Fridley and Chisago Lakes.
Despite the lopsided scores, the Hylanders do feature one of the top backs in the conference in JoJuan Harper. The senior tailback is second in Class AAAA in rushing with 647 yards and five touchdowns on 94 carries through four games.
The game is Columbia Heights' homecoming contest.