Homestead O-line keys 19-play clinching drive in 35-31 win over Cedarburg
Highlanders seize NSC lead
Want to make a football offensive line coach smile?
Grind out a 19-play, 87-yard drive that takes over nine-and-a-half minutes off the clock and scores the clinching touchdown in a pivotal conference championship-level game.
Just like the Homestead O-line did late in its pivotal, 35-31, victory over rival Cedarburg on Friday night as the Highlanders took sole possession of first place in the North Shore.
Homestead line coach Matt Wolf took special pride in its unit, relishing every play of the drive that started at the 11:02 mark of the fourth quarter and didn't finish until the 1:37 moment when Highlanders end Sasha Novak snagged a nine-yard TD pass from quarterback Nick Allen.
After Luke Neusen kicked the extra point, the Highlanders were up 35-18, and then were able to withstand a late Bulldogs flurry that included two TDs in the final seconds and was marked by a score on the final play of the game.
With the win, the Highlanders improved to 4-0 in North Shore play and 6-0 overall. They now have a one game lead on Cedarburg (3-1, 4-2), Whitefish Bay (3-1, 5-1) and Germantown (3-1, 5-1) in a still highly competitive NSC race and entertains Milwaukee Lutheran (1-5) in their homecoming game at 7 p.m. Friday.
Wolf is just glad that his group is contributing to the success, especially in key moments like the fourth quarter.
"That effort was absolutely phenomenal," Wolf said of the final march. "It's what you hope for. You control the ball and keep their offense off the field."
They needed to do that, because if the largely inexperienced defending WIAA State Division 2 champion Highlanders were going to succeed this fall the line needed to come through as it was the only sector of the team that had any serious experience back.
Juniors John Marita (6-3, 260), Michael Nelson (6-0, 240) and Elijah Perine (6-3, 285) all started last fall as sophomores in the state title game win over Waunakee.
As Wolf noted, their maturity has grown to the point where they had the confidence to manufacture that devastating, powerful drive to put the game out of reach. It included seven first downs and just two passes.
"When those guys make their blocks, it's a 100 times easier to run," said senior back Eric Wade, who was a prime beneficiary of the line's hard work, as he rushed for 208 yards on 33 carries including three first half TD runs. "That last drive was great. We knew we had to run as much clock off as we could and to get a great TD (the pass) like that capped it off perfectly."
All told, Homestead rushed for 326 yards on 58 carries on the evening.
Veteran head coach Dave Keel was impressed.
"The offensive line just took the team on its shoulders and wouldn't be denied," he said.
That trend started early on the first drive of the game, as the Highlanders were facing a fourth and one the Cedarburg 46. Rather than punting, Keel told his line to go get it and they did in a big way, as they cleared out the edge for Wade. He hit the Bulldogs sideline in a hurry and found the end zone with 6:09 left in the half.
"I got a great block from (fellow back) Anton (Ragozin), I bounced it out and then it just became wide open," Wade said.
The euphoria was short-lived as he Highlanders had their character tested almost immediately. The Bulldogs took advantage of great field position after the kickoff and quickly found the end zone themselves on a nine-yard Mike Mojica to Jonathan Stiever TD pass.
However, defensive lineman Alec Felton blocked the extra point to keep Homestead in the lead at 7-6.
It wouldn't last long.
On the very next play, an Allen pass was tipped and picked off by Bulldogs' defensive back Nick Russo, who returned it to the Homestead 3. Big back Hudson Walton ran it in a play after that at the 3:26 mark of the first quarter.
In the space of 21 seconds, the Bulldogs had gone from down 7-0 to up 12-7.
The Highlanders sideline strongly protested that the ball had bounced before Russo had snared it, but the call stood.
Highlanders don't panic
There was no panic though, as Keel noted his team's composure this night was "pretty special."
That thought was put to the test on the very next drive as Homestead ground out 66 yards in 11 plays for the go-ahead score. A fourth down quarterback sneak by Allen was one key play and a 17-yard pass to Vincent Wilkerson was another, before Wade found the end zone again at the 11:09 mark of the second quarter from six yards out.
It was 14-12 at that point and was the beginning of a 21-0 run by the Highlanders in the second quarter.
After the defense recorded the first of three straight first half stops (including a fumble recovery), the lead grew to 21-12 as Wade exploded off the left edge for 52 yards and an easy score.
Keel has a lot of respect for the 5-10, 185-pound first-time senior starter.
"He's never going to be the biggest, most imposing back out there," Keel said, "but we'll take him any day. He hits the hole and goes off like a bomb. He's gone. That's our kind of back."
Wade finished the first half with 168 yards on 19 carries, including an impressive eight first down runs. He had six runs, including a fourth down conversion, on the final scoring drive of the first half.
The Highlanders expertly managed the clock on this effort, as they took nine plays starting at the 3:51 mark of the second quarter and then ran it all the way down to the 24-second mark, when Allen took it in from nine yards out on a well-designed option run.
All that output was just a precursor to the critical fourth quarter push by the line that sealed the deal for Homestead.
"Throughout the season they have improved as a group so much," Wolf said of his group. "They work together extremely well. It's the closest group I've ever worked with."
Ragozin added 44 yards rushing and Allen 45 for the Highlanders while Mojica threw for 220 yards and four TDs for the Bulldogs.
"Our kids could have gone south (after that early onslaught)," Keel said, "but they didn't and then they executed wonderfully."
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