November 6, 2020 at 1:43 p.m.
But, Grand Rapids took advantage of that confidence in their prime match up on Friday, October 30 early, and it set the tone for an eventual 28-16 Thunderhawk win.
After the Viking defense seemingly forced a three and out on the opening drive from Grand Rapids, the Hawks were set to punt from their own 32 yard line on fourth and two. The only problem is, the center snapped it directly to the upback, and he took off to the right. The North Branch defense seemingly had the running back stopped for a loss, but he reversed field and found a seam up the middle and burst through. The return man took a bad angle and the GR running back strafed across the field and past him and eventually scored what ended up being a 68 yard touchdown on a fake punt. The extra point was good and the Hawks led 7-0.
The frustrating part for North Branch was that there was a clear block in the back when the runner reversed field, but it was missed by the referees and the score stood.
Head Coach Justin Voss didn’t think the score had anything to do with a particular plan to take advantage of NB’s aggressiveness on the punt block. “We had stopped their original designed run to the outside,” he said. “ We just had a lot of guys flow that way, and the angle was off and we got a good glimpse of the type of athletes Grand Rapids has.”
North Branch, who’s offense had been rolling in back-to-back weeks, finally ran into a tough defense on their opening drive, and the Hawks forced a three-and-out.
Grand Rapids turned on the jets on their second drive. They came out throwing, picking up a first down on the first play, then ripped off a big run before a counter play went for 27 yards down to the one yard line. A quarterback sneak punched in on the first try, and the Thunderhawks went up 13-0 quickly. The extra point was good to stretch the lead to 14-0.
On North Branch’s next drive, they started in great field position because the Hawks tried an onside kick, and it failed. They were able to gain a first down into Hawk territory, but then were forced to punt again. This time, the special teams unit for NB struck back. They did punt the ball, but were able to down it at Grand Rapids’ one-yard line, pinning them very deep in their own territory.
Despite running the ball well on the day to that point, Grand Rapids decided to roll their quarterback out to the right for a pass. Gavyn Jensen-Schneider had other ideas, and the NB linebacker flashed through on a blitz and sacked the quarterback in the endzone for a safety for the Vikings to make the score 14-2, and force GR to punt back to North Branch.
Taking over at midfield, North Branch got cooking right away. They had runs of seven, three, six, three and two to move down inside of GR’s 31-yard line.
But, the drive stalled on second and nine when the Vikings fumbled the ball and the opportune Thunderhawk defense pounced on the ball.
Rapids ripped off a long run on the first play from scrimmage, gaining about 60 yards, but it was called back on a crucial holding penalty. Two plays later, the North Branch defense came through in a big way and forced a fumble to flip the field back in their favor.
Starting on Grand Rapids’ 14 yard line, the Vikings went to the air, throwing two straight passes to open the drive. The second one hit paydirt, with Jensen-Schneider leaking to the far side of the field uncovered and Andrew Thauwald hitting him for his third receiving touchdown of the year. The two point conversion was thwarted and Rapids led 14-8.
On the next drive, however, Grand Rapids knew they needed to put something together, and they did. They ran 10 plays, keeping them all on the ground on punishing NB’s defense. The Vikings didn’t have an answer, only forcing them into two short third downs. Eventually, Rapids made good on the drive with a 23-yard touchdown run, capped by an extra point, putting the lead back to 13 at 21-8.
North Branch’s next possesion chewed some clock, but didn’t advance them far enough to threaten, so they ran out the clock on the first half facing a third and long in their own territory.
Coming out for the second half, the Viking offense was started to hum again. They had a 26 yard gain through the air and a 23 yard rush that brought them deep in Grand Rapids territory, but they went to the well a few too many times through the air, and Thauwald ended up throwing an interception to a GR linebacker.
But, the North Branch defense did their best to pick up the other side of the ball. On Grand Rapids’ second play on the drive, the running back muffed a toss and the Vikings’ leapt on the ball, recovering the fumble and giving the ball back to the O.
The Vikings made sure they paid the favor back on this drive. They took seven plays to move 32 yards, but it worked as Ashton LaBelle busted through the right side of the line for a three-yard touchdown run to cap the drive off. Thauwald got the edge on the two point conversion, and suddenly, the Vikings were down only five at 21-16.
In the two most important drives of the game, North Branch made almost every play they could, but it was the last one that did them in. They forced a fourth down decision from Grand Rapids on their possession, and when the Hawks went for it on fourth and three, the NB defense stuffed them for a one-yard loss. It gave the Viking the offense the ball in GR territory, and on the first play, LaBelle ripped off a 24 yard gain, just getting tripped up at the 15 yard line when he only had one man to beat for a score.
Three plays later, the Vikings faced a third and two on Rapids’ nine yard line, and they were knocking on the door to take the lead. LaBelle converted the first down, but was stripped of the ball at the five yard line and Rapids’ recovered for a sudden shift in momentum.
Over the next few drives, Grand Rapids flipped the field, and that made it tough for NB to get anything going. The Hawks drove inside NB’s redzone before failing on a fourth down attempt, but that put NB against their own endzone. They went four-and-out and gave Rapids the ball back in premium field position.
The NB defense did force Rapids into a third and 15, but a pass that was nearly broken up by two Vikings found its way into the hands of a Grand Rapids receiver in the endzone for an 18 yard touchdown and what was essentially an insurmountable 28-16 lead with only a few minutes left.
NB’s subsequent drive ended in an interception and Grand Rapids took two knees to run the clock out and win the game.