By Mike Deak
WARSAW – It almost appeared as though Warsaw was saying, ‘Just try to stop us.’
The Tigers had just one possession the entire game to which it didn’t score as it kept its perfect Northern Lakes Conference record in tact with a 42-24 win over NorthWood Friday night at Fisher Field.
Warsaw, which scored on six of its seven possessions in the game – its only gaff on a missed 39-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. Otherwise, the Tigers were effectively unstoppable all night.
All the while, the Tigers led just 21-14 at the half as NorthWood’s high octane offense was keeping pace. NorthWood jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead when Owen Roeder started what would be a busy night of finding JJ Payne wide open, this time on a slant for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
After Warsaw used all runs to plow down the field, Bryson Brown finished off the drive with an 11-yard scamper to the pylon. But that was countered quickly by the Panthers as the Roeder to Payne combo got the ball out to the 50, then Roeder hit NiTareon Tuggle with a perfectly placed ball over the top for a 50-yard score and a sudden 14-7 Panther lead.
But just as quickly as NorthWood fans started thinking potential upset, Trey Koontz shook off a blown coverage on Tuggle and decided to enact a little redemption. Koontz gathered the kickoff at the five and hit the seam, then bounced outside and took off for a 94-yard return to the NorthWood one before getting pulled down inches from the goal line. Jayce Sawyer dug in the final yard on the next play, the game was back to even at 14.
“In that moment, before the kickoff, I was really upset about the coverage I blew to let them score,” Koontz said. “I got burned, I can’t lie. So I go back out there, get the ball, find a couple holes and just jump outside and see green grass. At that point I felt like I was running in slow motion trying to get to the endzone.”
Brown would add a second score from 13 yards out with 52 seconds left in the half to give Warsaw the lead for good at 21-14.
Three long drives in the second half by the Tigers all ended in short touchdown conversions and the Flex Bone was in full motion. Tucker Curtis snuck one run in and Julius Jones ended the final two drives with one-yard scores. But it was Curtis to Jones for a long gain on a well-designed passing hit to the uncovered back kept another drive alive and forced everyone watching the Warsaw tape that the Tigers continue to break out the random pass when need be.
“Yeah, I’m just thinking don’t drop it, don’t get tackled,” Jones said of the pass play. “We just gotta keep running the ball down team’s throats. Keep staying aggressive and stick to the game plan.”
Warsaw ran the ball on 62 of its 65 plays and stacked up 317 rushing yards, 163 by Sawyer and 73 by Jones, who also had 37 yards receiving on two catches. The Tigers, without the services of leading back German Flores-Ortega with an injury, still averaged 5.1 yards per carry and racked up 18 first downs running the ball.
Roeder, in just his second start, would throw for 341 yards on 22-36 passing with three touchdowns. Roeder’s final touchdown went to Payne on an 86-yard bomb that Payne outran the Tiger defense the final 30 yards in an impressive burst of breakaway speed.
Payne had five catches for 159 yards and Tuggle five catches for 87 yards. The Panthers, which prides itself on the ability to run the ball, were held to just 50 net yards on 18 carries.
“We limited their big plays on the ground, but we had some lapses here and there that cost us,” said NorthWood head coach Nate Andrews. “They didn’t lull us to sleep, they were just patient. We had to find ways to turn them over, that’s the chance you have with them and how you create opportunities. We’ve got to get to the point where we create more turnovers in games like these.”
Warsaw’s win sets up a showdown next Friday at Jake Field in Dunlap, where the Concord Minutemen will be waiting for the Tigers. Both teams are 7-1 overall and 6-0 in the NLC, the two played head-to-head in 2019 in Dunlap for NLC bragging rights, the Minutemen winning that battle. Warsaw and Mishawaka split the 2020 title.