NAPPANEE – Without much room for error, the Wawasee Warrior defense decided to take a stand. Twice.
Answering the bell on fourth down and again with NorthWood desperate, the Warrior defense rose to the challenges in preserving a 21-16 win at Andrews Field.
NorthWood had been making a living in Wawasee territory in the second half, and after Travis Bear hauled in an 18-yard touchdown catch from Will Kirkwood on third and goal, the Panthers trailed by just the 21-16 score late in the third quarter.
Wawasee put together an impressive drive to burn up a good chunk of the fourth quarter, but faced fourth and one at the NorthWood 12. A quarterback sneak by Gage Reinhard was snuffed out, giving the Panthers the ball. Without missing a beat, NorthWood marched down the field and reached the Wawasee 15 with 3:21 to go. Facing fourth and nine, Kirkwood tried to again find Bear, but Austin Lutz made a great read on the fade route and batted the ball away.
After Wawasee stalled on its next drive, Wood got the ball on the 37 with 1:47 seconds left on the clock. But instead of driving into the red zone, Wawasee safety Brandin McCulloch jumped a Kirkwood route and ran the interception back 62 yards, allowing the Warriors to milk the clock and win its first Northern Lakes Conference game of the season.
“The biggest thing what I am proud of, is when adversity hit them, they stood up and said this isn’t going to happen,” stated Wawasee head coach Josh Ekovich. “Two weeks ago (at Northridge), that didn’t happen. That is the growth we have seen in this team.
NorthWood head coach Scott Hoover saw the opposite end of the spectrum.
“Their playmakers made plays and we didn’t,” Hoover said. “They made an interception there at the end and we dropped two interceptions that hit us right in the hands. They caught some touchdown passes, we dropped a touchdown pass that hit us right in the hands. Their guys made plays, and when we had the opportunity to do it, we weren’t even close. Our playmakers didn’t show up and make plays.”
Wawasee made its hay through the air, and not via its biggest threat. Quarterback Gage Reinhard’s favorite target, Clayton Cook, was held to just one catch for four yards after pulling in 100-yard games against Northridge and Concord in back-to-back weeks. Instead, Reinhard found Jordan Elliott eight times for 114 yards, including a 44-yard strike for a score in the third quarter and also a big 11-yard fourth down play to keep an early drive alive.
Lutz wasn’t just a defensive marvel for Wawasee, he also made huge catches. Lutz had four catches for 55 yards on the night, but pulled in an eight-yard touchdown to open the game’s scoring and caught a 31-yard strike with 9.6 seconds left in the half. The touchdown was keyed by NorthWood first fumbling away a snap inside the Wawasee 20, then allowing Sam Clark to sneak through the defense on a 36-yard pass play, setting up Lutz’s grab.
Reinhard was 15-22 for 221 yards and the three scores. His counterpart, Kirkwood, was just 11-22 for 184 yards.
“When you have a running back, you can give him 30 carries, but you can’t throw to a wide receiver 30 times a game,” Ekovich said. “That’s what nice about Cook. Last week he had 100-some yards receiving, this week he had four. If he has to be a decoy, he is fine with that. If he has to be the guy to get all the yards, he is fine with that, too. We tried to get him the ball, they just did a good job covering him.”
NorthWood owned a 9-7 lead in the second quarter when Elliott was ruled to have fumbled a long completion, and the Panthers completed the drive when Luke Edwards pounded the rock in from 18 yards out. The extra point was blocked by Dusty Akers.
NorthWood would outrush Wawasee 167-103, led by 99 yards from Edwards. McCulloch had 100 yards on the nose for the Warriors.
“I thought we were in a good place there in the fourth quarter, it was just a couple bad reads,” Hoover said, whose team had the ball in Wawasee territory on all three of its second-half possessions. “We didn’t get the push there we needed on a couple runs there at the end. When you leave it down to making one play like that, anything can happen. We needed to take care of business earlier, and we didn’t do that.”
The loss sets NorthWood back to 3-2 overall and 1-2 in the NLC while Wawasee improves to 2-3 overall and are also 1-2 in the conference.
The game, which also surrounded NorthWood’s homecoming, began on a somber note as NorthWood athletic director Norm Sellers began the night with the announcement and moment of silence in recognizing the passing of former NorthWood football player and Indianapolis police officer Rod Bradway, who was killed in the line of duty Friday morning in Indianapolis. The 1991 NorthWood graduate was a member of the football and track teams, and his number 12 jersey was displayed on the Panther sideline during the game.