COMMERCE TWP. >> Coming from behind in each half, Walled Lake Western succeeded at crunch time in just the right spots to hang on for a 24-21 victory over Walled Lake Northern Friday, clinching the game on a critical fourth-down defensive stand with under two minutes to play.
Up by just a field goal, the Warriors had to punt the ball back to Northern with 3:47 remaining, but the Knights were unable to move the chains. Four-straight running plays into the heart of Western’s defense resulted in a turnover on downs at the Warriors’ 33 yard line.
“Once they hit 21 points, we went back to our most basic defense to settle the kids down and play a single front so we had enough linebackers in the box,” Western coach Mike Zdebski said. “(Northern) ran the quarterback a lot more on that inside little lead play than we’ve seen them run (in scouting).”
The win improved Western’s season record to 4-1 (3-1 Lakes Valley Conference), while Northern dropped to 3-2 (2-2).
Leading 17-14 midway through the third quarter, the Warriors had a chance to regain a two-score lead, but the Knights’ Carson Haslinger came up with an interception right at his own goal line and returned it past midfield.
On Northern’s ensuing drive, the offense executed a trick play on third-and-goal when Chandler Holloway received a pitch in the backfield and caught the defense flat-footed by throwing the ball back across the field to junior quarterback Brenden Shelby for a 13-yard score.
Trailing 21-17, Western responded in a big way on its next possession. Senior Justin Thomas caught a short pass in the flat from quarterback Sam Johnson, then turned up field, put his shoulder down to power through a would-be tackler and managed to stay in bounds for a 47-yard go-ahead touchdown for the Warriors.
“When you have skilled kids, you get that RAC yardage – runs after the catch, you just have to get it in their hands,” Zdebski said. “You don’t need to hit those bombs all of the time. When we’re patient and pound the ball a little bit, then I think we’re pretty good.”
Northern had two more opportunities offensively in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t string together a sustained drive.
The Knights scored the game’s first points when Shelby ran the ball in from 3 yards out midway through the opening quarter. Northern came close to grabbing a commanding 14-0 lead on its next drive, but Western senior Jonathon Moffett forced a fumble in the red zone that was scooped up by Ben Reilly to end the threat.
“That was huge. If they had jumped up 14-0, that’s a lot of momentum,” Zdebski said.
Western got second-quarter touchdowns from Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen and Jakkell Moore-Wells, plus a 46-yard field goal by Aidan Jennings, to take a 17-7 advantage into intermission.
Shelby nabbed his second rushing touchdown of the game early in the third quarter for Northern to draw the score closer.
“The running game was better and we need to be able to run the ball at times. We were able to overcome some adversity. We were down, then up, then down, and we came back,” Zdebski said. “This is a whole new group from past years. Even though we, as coaches, have been down 14 or 21 points and come back, these kids haven’t, so we need to build that confidence and move from there.”
Wells-Moore finished with 113 yards on 13 carries, while Thomas hauled in three receptions for 103 yards.
Next week, both teams will be in action for Thursday matchups with Western hosting Lakeland and Northern on the road at Waterford Kettering.