Braves fend off Cougars late
By Brandon Miniard, Sports Writer, [email protected]
After starting the 2022 season 3-0, the North Harrison football team hit a speed bump in Week 4, when the Cougars traveled to Charlestown’s infamous “boneyard,” an arena that has not been too kind to the Cougars during head coach Mark Williamson’s tenure. The Cougars have beaten the Pirates three times, with only one of those coming at the boneyard.
Little changed in this year’s matchup as the Pirates routed the Cougars 39-13 to snap the latter’s undefeated start to the year. Matters didn’t get any easier in Week 5 when the Cougars returned home to host Mid-Southern Conference powerhouse Brownstown Central on Friday.
It took both sides some time to put numbers on the scoreboard, but the visiting Braves held the edge for the majority of the contest. Despite a Cougars’ touchdown in the game’s final two minutes, it wasn’t enough as the hosts were handed their second straight loss, 27-22.
“Brownstown’s always been a good team, and they’re gonna get better as the season goes on. They haven’t peaked, but we haven’t either,” Williamson said.
A golden opportunity presented itself for the Cougars to take the lead on the opening drive, traveling 30 yards before sophomore quarterback David Langdon attempted a touchdown pass. The pigskin found hands in the end zone, but those hands belonged to the Braves’ Isiaah Engle for an interception.
“What set it up was that we had a chop block on a miscommunication. Our guard went low, and our tackle was on his course and hit the guy, so there was no communication,” Williamson said. “We were in fine shape, now we’re 1st and 25, so we have to whip it around to our receivers.”
Defense was the name of the game in the opening frame as neither team put up a score, but the Braves got to the Cougars’ 34 to end the period. That positioning paid off a minute and a half into the second quarter when Braves’ quarterback Carson Darlage forced his way into the end zone for a four-yard rushing touchdown.
The opening lead failed to last as the Cougars needed only four plays, the last being a Langdon pass to senior wide receiver Riley Schneider, who took the rock to the house on a 45-yard passing score. Both sides exchanged scoreless subsequent drives before Darlage capped off the first half with a one-yard icebreaker, along with the second of kicker Bryce Peak’s three PATs with 52.6 seconds left before heading to the locker room up 14-7.
“(Brownstown Central) has been the same defensive team since I’ve been here and probably long before I got here,” Williamson said. “I use the old wide tackle six defense, but they cut through all of our offensive linemen. They run the ball well, and they’re tough against the run. The passing game is where teams have been getting them, and we’re built more that way this year than we were in the past.”
Much like the opening round, the third quarter saw no change in the scoreboard, yet the Braves came close when they got to the Cougars’ red zone only to fumble the ball away. The Cougars fared no better in the subsequent drive as they managed only a single yard before punting the pigskin away to start the final period.
Starting the period on the Cougars’ 45, the Braves needed three short rushes before Darlage broke away from the pack on a 27-yard rushing score to put the visitors up 21-7. The Cougars again answered on their next possession when Sawyer Wetzel, who had been contained by the Braves’ defense for much of the night, broke out for a 31-yard rushing score. Instead of another kick, the Cougars opted for a double handoff to senior wide receiver Kaleb Kellems, who easily trotted to the end zone for an successful two-point try, cutting the gap to 21-15.
With just more than three minutes remaining, the Cougars’ defense nearly had a stop on downs as they got the Braves to 4th and 4. Those hopes were dashed as the Braves’ Gregory Hutcheson broke free for a 32-yard run, setting the stage for another Darlage rushing score. Despite failing to convert the two-point effort, the Braves still expanded their advantage to 27-15.
As the clock passed two minutes remaining, the Cougars turned a near turnover on downs into another score when Langdon found Schneider on a pass while on 4th and 23. Despite taking a blow to the midsection by a Braves’ defender, Schneider bounced off him before stumbling into the end zone. All it did was close the gap further as the Braves escaped Ramsey with a tight 27-22 victory.
“We knew that we had to get the ball down the field late in the game, so we ran a drag route across the field. (Langdon) threw me the ball, and the outside linebacker was waiting for me,” Schneider said. “He just blew my midsection up and knocked the wind out of me.”
The Cougars were mostly held in check on the ground as they managed only 162 rushing yards as a team. Wetzel led the effort with 58 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Despite a pair of interceptions, the Braves’ defense had a harder time containing Langdon, who was 9 for 20 with 147 passing yards. Schneider led the receiving corps with 94 yards and caught both of Langdon’s passing touchdowns, while Kellems was held to 42 yards on three catches.
“They were double teaming me with a safety over top, so (Langdon) needed to look to other receivers,” Kellems said. “Once he figured that out, we started to play better in the second half.”
Despite suffering their second consecutive loss, Williamson was pleased with the effort his Cougars showed, which was an upgrade over their efforts against Charlestown.
“I felt that we played harder and tougher tonight than we did last week,” Williamson said. “I’m not making excuses, but (Brownstown Central’s) whole offense is first-year guys except for (Darlage). We have 11 spots that are first-year starters, and those are the ones that make the mistakes. (Brownstown Central) handled it a lot better than we did tonight.”
The Cougars will end a two-game homestand on Friday when they welcome Eastern (Pekin) for another MSC contest. Despite being winless in MSC play, the Musketeers may not be as easy a foe for the Cougars as they were in the past, having dropped a tight 33-32 decision to Corydon Central. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.