EVELETH — The Rock Ridge football team knew exactly what the North Branch game plan would be coming into Friday night’s contest.
The Wolverines needed to stop the Viking run game if they hoped to keep their opposition off the scoreboard. In the end, that proved difficult as North Branch ran for over 400 yards and five touchdowns as a team to down Rock Ridge 38-20.
The Wolverines were aided by a much-improved passing game and some explosiveness on special teams, but their defense failed to make the Vikings punt once all game, something Rock Ridge co-head coach Matt Anderson believes could have changed the game.
“North Branch was North Branch,” Anderson said after the game. “They did what they do really well. They ran the same play until we stopped them and then they ran another good play until we stopped that. But we struggled with stopping those plays sooner rather than later. Our goal of forcing them to punt didn’t come true and the game plays a little differently if we get them to give us the ball earlier instead of waiting for them to score.”
The Vikings passed the ball once in the entire contest — a completed two-point conversion after their final touchdown of the game. With the rest of their nearly 60 plays of offense going to the ground game, Rock Ridge was able to recover a couple of fumbles, but that didn’t substitute for consistent defensive stops.
Rock Ridge’s opening offensive drive looked to be one that would end in a touchdown, but the Wolverines fumbled the ball out of the back of the North Branch end zone, resulting in a touchback.
North Branch took over on their own 20 but fumbled the ball away on their third play from scrimmage. The ball was recovered by Rock Ridge’s Brandon Pionk, giving the Wolverines excellent field position at the North Branch 25. The drive was short-lived, however, as quarterback Griffin Dosan threw an interception on the first play of the drive to set up the Vikings first scoring drive.
Starting at their own 17, North Branch started the ensuing drive with 4:17 to play in the first quarter and scored with 8:51 to play in the second. The long, sustained drive was a collaborative effort from running backs Ashton Labelle, Loghan Croal and Samuel Robillard. Marching all the way down to the Rock Ridge three, Labelle took the rock and punched it in for the first score of the night. After Labelle ran in the two-pointer, it was 8-0 North Branch.
The Wolverines did themselves no favors with Wolverines fumbling the ensuing Vikings kickoff, handing the ball back to North Branch at the Rock Ridge 39. Croal took the next handoff for 38 yards and then hit paydirt from one yard out to make it 16-0 after the Croal two-point conversion.
Rock Ridge put together their best drive of the night so far on the ensuing possession. On second and 10 from their own 38, Dosan hit Jake Burress for the 18-yard gain. Ryan Manninen took the handoff on the following play and ran for 18 more, giving the Wolverines a first down on the Viking 29.
A holding penalty took Rock ridge back to second and. Dosan hit Manninen for seven more and then connected with Isaac Flatley for the 23 yard gain to give his team first and goal from the seven. Dosan held on to the rock for a keeper on the next play, running in for a seven-yard score to put Rock Ridge on the board 14-6.
The North Branch run game continued to rip off big chunks of yardage on the ensuing possession with Croal running for 23 yards on the second play from scrimmage. The Vikings eventually found themselves on the Rock Ridge one-yard line once again and Labelle ran it in for his second score of the night to make it 22-6 in favor of the visitors.
A good return by the Wolverines set their next drive up to start at their own 42. One play is all they would need as Dosan found Gavin Dahl wide open in the middle of the field. Dahl ran it home for the 58 yard score and then caught another pass from Dosan on the two-point conversion to make it a 22-14 game going into halftime.
The Rock Ridge defense came up with another turnover, this time on the first North Branch drive of the second half. The ball came loose thanks to a hit from Dahl with the Wolverines recovering it on their own 34.
The offense couldn’t put anything together, however, as the Wolverines punted it away on fourth and four.
As expected, the Vikings had no interest in changing up their game in the second half and continued to run down the field nearly unopposed. Labelle ran in the next North Branch score, this one from eight yards out to give his squad a 30-14 lead.
Dahl’s big night for Rock Ridge continued on the ensuing kickoff as the senior received the kick at his own 27 and ran it to the house for the 73-yard return score, keeping Rock Ridge in the game 30-20 with 11:47 to play in the contest.
That’s as good as things got for Rock Ridge as North Branch ran in one final score on another sustained drive. Samuel Sonnek was next to hit the end zone for the Vikings, scoring from eight yards out to make it 38-20 after the two-point pass play.
Co-head coach of the Wolverines Matt Anderson was proud of the way his team played in the loss, citing players stepping up over the loss of a few key players this week due to sickness.
“We had our opportunities,” Anderson said. “But we threw our kids in some tough situations. For lack of a better term, we had a mock offensive line out there this week. We had a few kids out sick and our guys played a lot of ironman football out there.
“Some of our guys aren’t used to playing this much or not having a backup so they really showed a ton of grit out there and that’s something we’ll need the rest of the way.”
The game against North Branch was the second in a row for Rock Ridge against a Class 4A opponent. Next week they take on Class 5A Duluth East before finishing out their season with more 4A opponents. With players from Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert playing the biggest teams — in both numbers and physical size — they’ve seen in their high school careers, Anderson knows things look stacked against Rock Ridge.
“People will say this is the toughest part of our schedule but that’s something we determine. We’re .500 right now and we’re halfway through the season. We determine our future and the kids did as well as they could have this week given the circumstances. The coaches are real proud with everything they did and how they battled.”
Anderson was also pleased to see his team’s passing game come alive for the first time in the season.
“It was nice to see our guys figure it out on that end. I think that should give us some confidence moving ahead the next couple weeks because it wasn’t something we were doing well with until this week. We have to start putting things together both running and passing and not being so one-dimensional.”
Looking ahead to the Greyhounds, Anderson says it’ll take another strong week of practice for his team to be ready for next Friday.
“We have to string together another positive week of practice. We can’t have a good week and then a bad week/ IF we can limit our distractions and have strong practices then I think we can continue to create a program that’s going to be consistent.”
NB 0 22 8 8 — 38
RR 0 14 0 6 — 20
N: Ashton Labelle 3 run (Labelle run)
N: Loghan Croal 1 run (Croal run)
R: Griffin Dosan 7 run (kick fail)
N: Labelle 1 run (run fail)
R: Gavin Dahl 58 pass from Dosan (Dahl pass from Dosan)
N: Labelle 8 run (Ryan Oday run)
R: Dahl 73 kickoff return (pass fail)
N: Samuel Sonnek 6 run (Adam Johnstone pass from Andrew Thauwald)