10/24/2013 2:46:00 PM North Branch upsets Harding, top-ranked Packers next
North Branch 35, Harding 14 Although North Branch was the underdog in the seedings going into their opening round match up with the St. Paul Harding Knights, the boys in red and white knew better. They had just finished a grueling eight-game trek through the tough-as-nails Mississippi 8 Conference. St. Paul Harding, on the other hand, danced to a 3-5 record in the St. Paul City Conference, a soft football conference in the cities. The Vikings brought their smashmouth option out right away and it paid dividends. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Vikings bulled their way through the Knight defense before capping off the drive with a 17-yard touchdown scamper by senior quarterback Tony Denn.
Trey Oday’s extra point was good and North Branch held an early 7-0 lead. On Harding’ ensuring first drive, they were able to move the ball fairly well using a spread rushing attack, but North Branch’s defense turned stout when they needed to. After 75 yard were chewed up by Harding, they found themselves in a fourth and goal from the five and elected to go for a field goal. Their kicked pushed the ball wide right and North Branch got the ball back with no harm done. The offense quickly went to work to give the defense more breathing room. After Denn had back-to-back rushes that gained 15 yards, junior running back Eli Chouinard took a toss to the right side and raced to the edge past the Harding defense. He hurdled a Harding defender near midfield, springing him free to the end zone for the acrobatic 65-yard score on only his second carry of the game. North Branch’s defense made their own luck on Harding’s second drive.
They didn’t wait for the Knights to miss a field goal. Instead, the Vikings D forced Harding into a fourth and short and stuffed Harding’s quarterback on a designed draw, with Dylan Dahle leading the defensive charge on the tackle. The stop gave the NB offense the ball near midfield. Denn opened the drive with a 14-yard run as Harding’s defense started to look gassed. That’s when Denn really put his foot on the gas, racing around the line and up the left hash for a 42-yard touchdown run. It was a two play drive that lasted 13 seconds. Oday’s kick was good, putting North Branch up 21-0 early in the second quarter. Harding answered finally, aided by a costly North Branch facemask penalty, by punching in a three yard score from Ben Thompson. The Knights only needed to go 58 yards on the drive, but they did it in 10 plays, taking a big chunk of time off the clock as a result. The time didn’t matter to North Branch, though. They started a grinding drive of their own that ripped off chunks of yardage at a four and five yard pace until the Vikings found themselves back deep into Harding territory.
North Branch got a bit creative at that point, as Denn dropped back to pass for only his fourth time on the night, but confusion in the Harding secondary led to junior wide receiver Jack Tholen being open near the end zone. Denn heaved the ball up and actually underthrew it, but Tholen made a great adjustment and caught the ball near the back corner of the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown reception. Oday’s point after extended North Branch’s lead back to three scores. Harding tried to string together one last scoring drive before halftime, but it was thwarted when Oday picked off Harding’s quarterback. The turnovers were the key to the first half, as Harding had two of them and both were costly. The failed drive inside the five yard line was also a back breaker for St. Paul. The second half started much like the first half had gone. Harding put together a bit of a drive, but on third and six, the Knights ran a toss sweep and Oday darted into the backfield from his defensive back position and stopped the Harding running back for a loss.
Harding went for it on fourth down, but their pass attempt fell harmlessly incomplete, giving the ball back to North Branch. The Vikings then started a methodical drive that chipped most of the time away in the third quarter and ended in paydirt. Chouinard, Denn and Kodie Koolmo combined for nine straight rushes that resulted in four first downs. Denn then when back to the air and back to his favorite target in Tholen, and they hooked up for another touchdown, this one of the 34-yard variety. Tholen had beaten a confused Harding secondary and was wide open and Denn delivered the ball in beautifully. Oday’s fifth extra point of the game stretched the lead to 35-7 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter. North Branch’s defense again proved to be ball hawks on the ensuing drive.
Harding brought the ball to midfield, but on a third and long, the Harding quarterback got in a mad scramble that had him planting and throwing from nearly 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage and Dahle was waiting as the ball came down, picking the QB off and giving NB the ball back. The Vikings moved the ball a bit on the drive, but it stalled from a ways out. Head Coach Nick Nitti sent Oday out to try a 40-yard field goal, but it was unsuccessful, and Harding took over on downs. As North Branch started to parade in substitutes, the Knights found the end zone again, but lopped almost five minutes off the remaining time in the process. North Branch recovered the ensuing onside kick, but with mostly backups in on offense, the Vikes were only able to muster one first down before turning it back over on downs to Harding.
The Knights actually threatened to make it interesting quickly, though. After taking over on their own 30, the Harding quarterback connected with his receiver for what was nearly a 71-yard touchdown, but North Branch’s defenders didn’t quit on the play and forced a fumble about two yards short of the end zone, the Vikings pounced on the loose ball in the end zone, giving North Branch a touchback and keeping the score at 35-14 instead of 35-21. North Branch was able to grind out one more first down and then kept the ball until the buzzer sounded. The win means North Branch will travel down to South St. Paul to take on the Packers on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. The Packers are the top seed in Section 4AAAA, and were 7-1 on the season. They were ranked at the top of the Class AAAA polls for much of the season until a regular season finale loss to St. Thomas. However, North Branch is going to have their work cut out for them if they want to stick with the bruising and big Packers.
Big Lake 27, North Branch 7 In the shortened week because of Minnesota Education, the Vikings dropped their regular season finale to the Big Lake Hornets. Big Lake passes the ball plenty, and it was an attack the Vikings hadn’t seen all year. Big Lake’s quarterback Tyler Halverson ended the night with four touchdown throws and 261 yards on 19-of-25 passing. Halverson also added 95 yards rushing for a 356 yard effort. The Hornet defense, meanwhile, conceded runs to Denn, but they weren’t going to let Koolmo and Chouinard beat them. Denn ran for 156 yards on 25 carries, many of them QB keeps after Big Lake crashed inside on defense, while Chouinard and Kowloon only rushed for a combined 43 yards on 19 carries. The loss had dropped North Branch from the second seed down to the fifth seed in Section 4AAAA, the reason they played Harding earlier this week at Bakken Field.