October 28, 2022 at 12:14 p.m.
Croal's big day and a Hail Mary propel North Branch to win and first round bye
Cloquet started the game by mimicking a typical North Branch drive. They went 75 yards in 12 plays, 11 of them rushes, to score the opening salvo of the game and go up 6-0. The big play was a beautiful play action pass that was a designed throwback. Everything trended to the right, but the quarterback stopped on a dime and hit the running back he had faked to, who had bled out to the left side of the field uncovered, and he took it 31 yards on third and 12.
North Branch answered with their own methodical drive after taking over for their first possession.
They got a nice kick return out to their own 40 and then went on an 11 play drive that ended in a 1 yard touchdown run from Loghan Croal. The big play was right before the score, when the Vikings faced a fourth and two at the 14 yard line. Croal slashed up the middle of the Cloquet defense and converted with a four yard run that set up the touchdown. The Vikings kicked the extra point, and they led 7-6.
The defense started out much better on the next drive. They forced a seven yard loss on the first play, before the Lumberjacks committed a false start, putting them in a second and 21 scenario. They only got five yards on that play, and then a face a third and 16. The Cloquet quarterback actually had two targets open on the play but he dropped the ball in between them and neither caught the ball, forcing a punt by the ‘Jacks. North Branch’s punt return team put together a nice return and the offense took over at Cloquet’s 33.
Things started off bleak, however. On NB’s first play, Adam Johnstone was whistled for an illegal chop block down the field. While it was the correct call, Johnstone was pushed and lost balance, resulting in him submarining towards the defenders legs. It was an unfortunate and unintentional penalty on the Vikings that cost them 15 yards and eventually put them in a third and 23 situation.
On the tough down, Peterson dropped back to pass and rolled right. He connected with Sam Robillard down the field for a 12 yard gain, and it looked like the Vikes would come up short, but the Lumberjack defense horse collared Robillard to the ground, resulting in a 15 yard penalty in favor of North Branch.
Four plays later, Vinny Boeck powered his way into the endzone for NB’s second touchdown. The extra point try bonked off the left upright and NB was up 13-6.
On Cloquet’s ensuing drive, the defense again played well and force them into a punting situation at fourth and 11 from their own 47. But the Lumberjacks went deep into their playbook to pull out some trickery, connecting on a fake punt pass for a 49 yard gain all the way down to North Branch’s four yard line. A few plays later, and Cloquet found the endzone and then also converted their two pointer to take the lead at 14-13 with only 14 seconds to go before halftime.
North Branch got a gift that would pay off in spades and took over on their own 45 when Cloquet curiously tried an onside kick with short time.
The Vikings then ran the ball three times, gaining 15 yards, and called a timeout after each play. That left them 40 yards out with just four seconds left in the half and no timeouts left. Peterson took the snap and did a wonderful job of climbing the ladder in the pocket to buy himself a bit more time and space. He uncorked the ball as far as he could to Johnstone, who was in single coverage. The senior tight end made a great adjustment to come back to an underthrown ball and just a sudden, shifted back up field, leaving the defender confused as Johnstone raced to the endzone for the Hail Mary touchdown with zeroes on the first half clock. The North Branch sideline erupted in joy and celebration as Johnstone crossed the goalline. NB’s two point conversion was good when Croal shed two tackles en route to the score to put the Vikings up 21-14 going into the second half.
The Vikes received the second half kick, and they made sure to keep their momentum rolling. They went on a 15 play drive that included two fourth down conversions, and it was punctuated by another short Croal touchdown scamper. It was set up by a 31 yard pass on fourth and four from Peterson to Boeck that brought NB down to the goalline.
The Vikings extra point was good, and they extended their lead to 28-14.
Cloquet was 5-2 on the year, though, and the Lumberjacks weren’t going to go quietly. They scored on a 23 yard touchdown pass on their next drive, but missed their two pointer to trim NB’s lead to 28-20.
North Branch, though, was too good to panic. They started the next drive on their own 25 and it took them all of one play to erase Cloquet’s recent score. Croal got the handoff on NB’s first play and he started right, cut inside of a great Robillard block and all of a sudden the Red Sea parted and Croal had a massive lane up the middle. He hit it, flying past Lumberjack defenders, going virtually untouched for a 75 yard score.
NB’s extra point was no good after a bad snap, but they led 34-20.
Cloquet, without much time left, had to go to the air. They threw three incomplete passes before the QB hit a wide receiver for a 44 yard gain on fourth and 13 from their own 32 yard line. Two plays later, and Cloquet converted from 16 yards out for a touchdown to cut the lead to 34-26. The ‘Jacks nailed the extra point, and it was a one score game again.
The resilient Vikings answered again, riding the hot hand of Croal as they moved down the field slowly. It took them eight plays, all rushes, to get into scoring position and make good on another score, this one from Robillard from two yards out.
The extra point was no good, but NB’s lead went to 40-27 and Cloquet had almost no time to mount another comeback. The game ended with the Vikings winning by the 13 point margin.
The win was huge for North Branch. The winner of this game no doubt was going to get the third seed in the section, which comes with a bye. The loser was going to have to host Duluth Denfeld earlier this week in the opening round.
The third seed in Section 7AAAA means the Vikings will travel to second-seeded Hermantown Saturday, October 29 with a section championship game berth on the line. The Hawks were 6-2 on the year also, but beat North Branch 21-18 just two weeks ago, so it’s going to be a grinding playoff game, typical of the tough Minnesota playoffs. The game will kick off at 6 p.m. on Saturday.