September 16, 2022 at 12:48 p.m.
The Greyhounds, who won their opener 58-0, were a tough task for North Branch, but a strong beginning and end to the game were big reasons the Vikings were able to escape with a road win.
Duluth East started with the ball, but on their second play from scrimmage, senior linebacker Sam Robillard punched the ball out of the Greyhound quarterback’s possession, and senior lineman Adam Johnstone pounced on the loose pigskin to turn East over.
The timely turnover gave North Branch a short field, as they took over on East’s 37 yard line.
Quarterback Preston Peterson ripped off NB’s first big gain of the day, going for 12 yards on second down.
That was followed by a seven yard run from Vincent Boeck, and then a beautiful 20 yard run from Loghan Croal down to the one yard line. Croal looked like he was stuffed for a loss on the play, but wiggled his way to the outside and beat his man to the corner before racing towards the goalline and being pushed out just short of it. Boeck punched it in on the next play, leaping into the endzone for the Vikings’ first score of the game to go up 6-0. NB was stuffed on the two point conversion, keeping the lead at six.
But, East answered back pretty quickly, scoring the first touchdown that the North Branch starting defense had given up this year. Pine City scored last week, but it was late in a 60-7 blowout where no starters were in.
The ‘Hounds extra point was good, and they grabbed a 7-6 lead.
North Branch’s offense then proceeded to go on a trademark drive that made Head Coach Justin Voss proud. Voss loves to pound the rock and use misdirection in the run game, and North Branch sure did that on their second possession.
They went on a long, grueling 21 play drive that featured 19 runs and four fourth down conversions, including the last one that went for a 10 yard touchdown from Robillard. The biggest play of the drive was actually a pass interference call on one of the passing attempts.
During the drive, NB converted a fourth and four from their own half of the field, a fourth and two, a fourth and one and another fourth and two.
The touchdown run was a thing of beauty as Peterson handed immediately to Robillard but the quarterback’s fake keeper with Croal to the outside, drew three defenders out of the box. Robillard steamrolled the only one that remained at the five yard line and pretty much carried him into the endzone.
North Branch’s two point conversion was good and the Vikings went up 14-7 over the Hounds.
East didn’t take long to answer back though. They had a long kick return that brought them down to North Branch’s 38 yard line. Their running back took the second play 20 yards down into the redzone. On the next play, East’s quarterback hit their running back out of the backfield in the front corner of the endzone for a nice passing touchdown.
They lined up for the extra point, but multiple North Branch defenders broke through the line and blocked the kick, preserving NB’s 14-13 lead.
North Branch started another long, arduous drive, but because their second one had taken up so much time, they didn’t have much left in the half and once they crossed the 50 and got into Greyhound territory, they had to start throwing the ball and they couldn’t move it down any closer. The half ended with a North Branch punt that downed in the endzone.
North Branch went three and out to start the second half, with their third down play causing some confusion on their side and getting blown up in the backfield.
East then made NB pay for the short drive, leaning on senior quarterback Peyton Witzman and senior running back Austan Overdahl, who pretty much carried the Hounds all night.
The pair teamed up for some long runs before Witzman hit a 12 yard touchdown pass up the seam to give East a 19-14 lead. Their two point conversion was good, and East went up 21-14.
On North Branch’s first play of the next drive, the Vikings uncharacteristically went to the air. Peterson got demolished just after letting the ball fly, but he connected with Johnstone for a 21 yard gain. Johnstone had come clear of the East defenders but with the pressure in his face, Peterson underthrew the ball. But, Johnstone still used his height and athleticism to sky over two Hound defenders and secure the catch.
The next play, North Branch ripped off a 20 yard run, and then they kept driving deep into East territory. On second down inside the 10 yard line, North Branch again went to the air and Peterson connected with Joey Donahue in the back of the endzone for the junior tight end’s first career touchdown.
North Branch plowed their way in for the all important two point conversion, giving them a 22-21 lead over the Hounds as the fourth quarter was just beginning.
Duluth East wasn’t just going to go away easily, though. Overdahl and Witzman dominated the next drive, with Overdahl ripping off long, punishing runs and seemingly taking three North Branch defenders to take him down each time. His exclamation point on the drive was a weaving 25 yard direct snap rush down the left side where he made an NB defender miss near the line of scrimmage and then outraced two others to the pylon for a score.
That score put East up 27-22, and a two point conversion would’ve put them up by seven, but they elected for a pass and Witzman got drilled on a blindside hit as he let go of the pass and it popped up in the air and North Branch got the interception to keep the deficit at just five points.
On the ensuing drive, North Branch’s first two drives went backwards, leaving them with a third and 12 without a ton of time remaining in the game. But, the perfect call came in and Peterson got to call his own number on a keeper and raced to the outside for a 29 yard run that moved the ball into East territory. Michael Thao followed with a punishing 10 yard run for the Vikings that put the ball at the 15 yard line, and Croal finished the drive with a nice run up the middle where he broke three East tackles to regain the lead for North Branch with just over a minute and a half left in the game. Donahue bullrushed his way into the endzone on the two point conversion, stretching NB’s lead to 30-27.
East got a good return on the kickoff, putting them up to their own 40 yard line. On the first play, Witzman completed a 13 yard pass, crossing midfield for East. On the second play, Overdahl, who had been a bear to take down all game, got the handoff and sophomore linebacker Nolen Volner made a beautiful tackle on him in the backfield, wrapping up his legs while the rest of the defense rallied to help.
Another fine defensive play on the net snap limited Overdahl to just two yards and kept him in bounds to keep the clock running, bringing up a third and 13 for East. But, Overdahl got back to his punishing ways and took a screen pass from Witzman 26 yards down to North Branch’s 25 yard line.
On third and eight, East set up another beautiful screen, but the tight end, who had two blockers in front of him and no North Branch defender within 15 yards, dropped the pass in what may have been a game-saving play for NB.
On fourth and eight, Overdahl, who had been clutch for East all night, made a crucial mistake. He received the snap and ran left towards the sideline to get out of bounds, but he stepped out of bounds far too early. East needed to get to the 16 yard line for a first down and he went out of bounds at about the 19 yard line, turning the ball over on downs to the Vikings, who let out a huge sigh of relief.
One snap and kneeldown for Peterson, and the Vikings came away with the narrow victory.