By Alex Smith
Going into last Friday night’s game against the Knightstown Panthers, Northeastern and Head Coach Wes Oler knew they needed a win to stay tied atop the Tri-Eastern Conference. They also knew that it would be easier said than done as Knightstown had proven themselves throughout the season as a sound and physical squad, as well as a squad that had managed at least 27 points in every game dating back to Aug. 30.
However, when it came to scoring points in this game, it turned out to be a one-way street in favor of the Knights as the weather turned out to be a bigger factor than almost anything else on the field.
The Knights began the night on defense and the effects of the weather made themselves known very early on as the first Knightstown play from scrimmage was a bobbled snap and a dead play. On the very next play, Knightstown’s physically imposing running back, Junior Ben Newby, put the ball on the ground and the Knights recovered in Panther territory.
The Knights’ offensive game plan was obvious from the start of the game: run the football. Armed with their familiar Wing-T formation, Sophomore QB Ashton Martin began the game as the team meant to go on, by dolling out handoffs left and right to a trio of ball carriers. Perhaps the most notable carry of the night went to Senior RB Shane Berry, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the season in the Knights first drive. The heavy dose of Berry continued throughout the drive as well as the game, despite almost losing a fumble himself with around five minutes to go in the first quarter.
The first touchdown for the Knights came on a jet sweep to Senior Wes Mull, who took the ball around the end of the line and scored easily as the defense appeared to be playing for the run up the middle with Berry. The two-point conversion attempt failed, and the Knights now led 6-0 with 4:38 left in the first quarter.
The ensuing Knights’ kickoff nearly resulted in a ball recovery, as the soaked field played tricks with the squibbed kick that was rolling away from the Knightstown special teams player as he tried to field it. The next Panther drive came with a couple decent runs by Ben Newby and Senior RB Nick Walsh, but a potential first down run was negated by a penalty, and that would become a theme for the Panthers all night as they couldn’t seem to get out of their own way.
Northeastern, however, made it a point to play disciplined football this week. “We preached all week playing disciplined football, and I don’t think we had any penalties. I thought we controlled the field position battle for most of the game,” Coach Oler said postgame.
Back on offense, Northeastern continued to work Shane Berry up the middle while giving timely handoffs to Mull and fellow runner, Senior Cade Bray, around the outside. However, they ultimately gave the ball back to the Panthers without recording another score. Senior defensive lineman Joshua Berger thwarted the next Knightstown drive with a big first down sack, pinning them deep in their own territory. Knightstown eventually punted away and gave Northeastern fantastic field position around midfield.
Following a huge run once again from Wes Mull, the Knights’ were able to put points on the board again. This time, the touchdown came courtesy of a big run from Cade Bray. Bray took a handoff almost identical to that of Mull’s on the first drive and scored easily, putting the Knights up 12-0 with around five minutes to go in the first half.
With their next drive, the Panthers tried to start attacking the Knights’ defense through the air, as the likes of Joshua Berger and Shane Berry were standing tall against the running game all night. However, Knightstown’s Junior QB Chase Richmond was unable to connect, and it forced another punt. This punt, after being bobbled by the punter, was blocked by Senior lineman Nate Pardo and simultaneously set up the Northeastern offense with great field position for the final minute or so of the first half.
Despite the field position, no points came of the drive as the lone pass attempt of the night for the Knights ended up not being a pass thrown at all, as Bray took a handoff from Martin and looked deep in the end zone before being sacked and the clock expiring. Northeastern took a 12-0 lead into halftime, and it felt even larger due to the increasingly worse weather conditions.
The start of the third quarter coincided with heavier rain and bigger gusts of wind, stopping either team from doing much besides losing control of the ball, occasionally. Joshua Berger continued his stellar defensive night as he added a blocked punt to his record early on in the quarter. However, the Northeastern offense was unable to capitalize on greater field position, and sent a wayward punt of their own back to the Panthers as Mull bobbled the snap and managed only a one yard punt.
Despite their best field position of the night, the Knightstown offense couldn’t move the ball very much at all, as Sophomore Alex Mikesell started to make his presence known on the defensive side in the second half. More penalties and negative plays by the Panther offense gave the ball back to the Knights late in the third quarter.
After a few more first downs were grinded out by the Northeastern offense and Shane Berry, the ball was fumbled by Wes Mull and returned 25 yards by the Knightstown defender, however it was all for naught as the Knightstown run was called back by a penalty after the ball was recovered. Despite turning it over, Mull was back on the field for defense and was nearly able to make up for the mistake with an interception, but the ball slipped through his hands and kept him from a potential pick-six.
The fourth quarter was much of the same as the teams traded punts back and forth before Knightstown tried a fake punt with Ben Newby with around seven minutes to go in the game, but it gained only a yard and seemed to take the air of the Knightstown team. If that specific play wasn’t deflating enough, the 26-yard Cade Bray touchdown run surely was as he strolled through the line before breaking a pair of tackles around the goal line with 6:16 to go in the game.
A dagger of a touchdown, combined with a two-point conversion from Shane Berry, put the final nail in the coffin for the Knights with their 20-0 lead.
The remainder of the game for Knightstown’s offense consisted of pass attempts from Chase Richmond to Senior WR Max Muncy on the outside.
However, Berger and Mikesell slammed the door shut with constant penetration, pressure, and hard hits on Richmond and anyone else who decided to touch the ball. Following a 4th and 18 intentional grounding call on Richmond that gave the ball away for the final time, the Northeastern offense took over with around 1:30 left. After a few runs, Ashton Martin assumed the victory formation and burned the rest of clock, giving the Knights a 20-0 win.
“Our season has kind of been like last year, where we started out really well, then lost like four of our last five. So we challenged our seniors to kind of make that decision where we’re going to steer this in a different direction,” Coach Oler said after the game, glad his team was able to find their winning ways again following a two game losing streak.
Northeastern now sits at 6-2 on the season and 6-1 in the TEC, where they are now tied with the Winchester Falcons for 1st place. A win at home next week against the Hagerstown Tigers will guarantee at least a share of the TEC Championship for the Knights, and they could even sit alone at the top of the conference if Winchester falls to Union City.
However, it will be hard to count on a Winchester loss as they have been rolling on a five-game winning streak, outscoring their opponents 170-57 with two straight shutouts. Hagerstown will visit Northeastern next Friday, October 18 in the season finale, coming off a 20-14 win versus Tri High, but still sitting at 3-5 on the season. The key to next week’s victory, and ultimately a share of the TEC, will be similar to the key to victory against Knightstown: disciplined football.