9/21/2017 3:27:00 PM Fireworks abound in North Branch's 66-45 victory over Duluth East
In a season full of surprises, the North Branch football team keeps impressing each time they take the field, especially on offense.
After scoring 50 in their season opener and 42 in week two against Hermantown, the Vikings topped both of those efforts by hanging up 66 points on Duluth East in a 66-45 victory in front of the home crowd.
The crowd size and excitement is usually only worth noting for North Branch’s homecoming, but that’s because Vikings’ fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for in the last decade.
This season, the Vikings have reinvigorated the fan base, and the team sure treated them on Friday.
North Branch’s offense opened with a surprisingly methodical drive early. They had back-to-back nine yard runs but then a five yard run and a no-gainer put them in an unfamiliar third and long. Duluth East committed a penalty on the ensuing play, though, giving North Branch a free first down. The Vikings made the Greyhounds pay, as Tyler Adams rushed for 10 yards on the next play, and then sprinted for a 19 yard touchdown to finish the drive. NB’s two point conversion was no good, and they held an early 6-0 lead.
North Branch’s defense then answered the call on the first drive, forcing Duluth East into a third and 36 after two penalties and a sack. The defense allowed a 25 yard pass on third down, but thought they were off the field to send their high-powered offense back out. But, East had a clever fake punt in their arsenal, using their upbacks and misdirection, and it paid off in the form of a 32 yard run by Josh Daniels-Hanbury on fourth and 11.
It was for naught, however, as North Branch forced East into a fourth an two from the Vikings’ 14 yard line. The Hounds tried to force it up the middle, but the North Branch defense answered the call, stuffing them after one yard and turning the ball back over to their offense.
North Branch took over and moved down the field with big contributions from Thomas Wurdemann, Aaron Robillard and Darien Fair. They found themselves in a fourth and five situation from East’s 18 yard line, but Robillard hit Zack Pilz for a nine yard gain to convert and make it first and goal. Three plays later, Adams punched in his second touchdown of the game. Robillard’s two point conversion run was good and NB led 14-0 into the second quarter.
On their ensuing drive, East realized their best chance to compete with the North Branch offense was to go to the air also, and it was effective often.
They scored their first touchdown of the game on a 28 yard run by Tharald Kimball, but it was set up by 40 yards of passing by Luke Hietala.
North Branch’s next drive was peppered with plenty of Robillard and Adams and even some Evan Amunrud, but they again found themselves in a fourth down situation deep in East territory. Robillard hit another cold-blooded connection to Hunziker for 18 yards, setting NB up at the 10 yard line. On the next play, Robillard scampered 10 yards for a touchdown, going back up by two scores.
East again went back to the air, starting their drive with a 21 yard pass from Justin Cone to Evan Anderson. They eventually scored again on a seven yard pass from Cone to Daniels-Hanbury.
North Branch used most of the rest of the second half clock to move down into East territory, but an incomplete pass on fourth and nine turned the ball over to East on their own 28 with 1:32 left in the half.
North Branch Head Coach Sam Ferraro seemed content to go into halftime up 22-12, as Duluth East committed a penalty and then snapped the ball over their quarterback’s head for a 17 yard loss. Ferraro did not call a timeout after that play, despite having two in his pocket.
With under one minute left in the half, facing second and 32 from their own six yard line, Duluth East inexplicably attempted a short passing play that fell incomplete and stopped the clock.
On third and 32, they attempted another very short passing play that the North Branch defense sniffed out for a quick three yard gain. Sensing the short field he’d have to work with and the effectiveness of his offense, Ferraro quickly used one of his timeouts to get the clock to stop with 30 seconds left.
East punted the ball away, and their worst nightmare came true as Hunziker fielded the ball at East’s 45 yard line and returned it 33 yards down to the 12 yard line with just 20 seconds left.
Wurdemann ran for five yards on the first play, followed by an NB timeout, setting them up with second and five from the seven yard line with just 14 seconds left.
On the next play, Robillard found Fair in the back of the endzone for a toe-tapping touchdown. Wurdemann made good on the two point conversion, and North Branch took advantage of Duluth East’s generosity to go up 30-12 at halftime.
During halftime, the Greyhounds, who featured a lot of two-way players, were able to regroup and refocus their offense into a pass heavy scheme. That paid off early in the second half as Heitala hit Daniels-Hansbury for a 69 yard touchdown pass on the third play of the half, trimming the lead to 30-19.
The North Branch offense didn’t even blink. Whether that was because they weren’t affected by the score, or because they didn’t have the time to blink, we’ll never know, but they took two plays, including a 57 yard touchdown run by Adams, to answer back and stretch the lead back to 36-19 just a minute and a half into the half.
The fast and furious action was just getting started though, as the teams would combine for 51 points in the third quarter.
East scored on a 10 yard touchdown pass just two minutes later to trim the lead to 36-26. Things got dicey for North Branch just a few plays later, as Robillard made his only real mistake of the night on third and nine, throwing a ball inside on a comeback route that East’s Evan Anderson picked off and took to the house for a touchdown. That trimmed the once comfortable lead to just three as North Branch was in front 36-33. A similar swing in momentum was about to happen for North Branch, though. Robillard came back out determined as ever, and North Branch scored a touchdown after just five plays, with Robillard going in from 19 yards out to put North Branch back in front 44-33.
On East’s second play of their ensuing drive, Connor Hartmann stepped in front of a Hietala pass, picking it off and setting the offense up in Duluth East territory. This time, it took just six plays for the Vikings to score, with Robillard finding Fair for his second touchdown catch of the game, this one from 14 yards out. The two point conversion was good and the game went from close to three scores in what seemed like a blink of an eye.
The tide kept shifting in North Branch’s favor, as their defense forced a three and out on the next East possession, setting the Vikings up for a potential nail in the coffin. Of course, the offense made sure to hammer that nail home, as Hunziker bursted through the weary East defense for a 43 yard touchdown with four seconds left in the quarter. That made the game 60-33 with a quarter left to play still.
At that point, North Branch wanted to save some wear on Robillard and get a look at Fair at quarterback in case they would need him in any emergency duty. The first drive was a bit rocky as Fair fumbled on a handoff that East recovered and turned into seven points.
The Vikings trotted Fair back out at quarterback and despite a few rough plays, he led them on a scoring drive by rushing it in from four yards out on fourth and goal.
At that point, there was less than five minutes left in the game and both teams brought in subs to finish out the game. East scored one more touchdown, but didn’t threaten again the rest of the way as North Branch moved to 3-0 with the 66-45 win.
The box score was again stuffed with impressive performances throughout from North Branch. Robillard was 10-of-19 for 152 yards and two touchdowns, one to Fair and one to Hunziker. Fair caught three passes for 53 yards. Hunziker had five catches for 82 yards. On the ground, Adams ran for 191 yards on 13 carries and Robillard had 127 yards on 14 carries. Wurdemann chipped in 61 yards on 13 carries.
This week is homecoming for North Branch, but even bigger, it’s the most important game played at the North Branch field in over 15 years. Undefeated and ranked Cloquet comes to town in what is arguably the Vikings’ biggest roadblock on the schedule. What’s more is the Lumberjacks feature an effective passing attack, and that’s what North Branch has struggled with so far this year, when their opponents go to the air. Senior quarterback Tim Pokornowski has led the ‘Jacks, going 25-of-33 for 331 yards and five touchdowns. Their defense has been up to the task also, only allowing nine points per game in blowout wins over Esko, Duluth Denfeld and Hibbing.
Both teams have their sights set on big things this year, as they not only share a district, but also a section. According to minnesota-scores.net’s QRF rankings, which is the official seeding method of Section 7AAAA, North Branch is ranked sixth in Class AAAA currently, and Cloquet is 10th. No other team in the section is in the top 20.
The homecoming game will kick off at 7 p.m. at North Branch on Friday, September 22.