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Fulkerson leads Northfield to victory over Knights

Football: Northfield’s Levi Fulkerson (7) prepares to hand the ball off Jarret Shafer (32) during the second half of Friday’s sectional semi-final.

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@wabashplaindealer.com

Seven weeks ago, Northfield football head coach Brandon Baker made note that a lack of execution from his side was the difference in a 20-6 loss. On Friday, with the stakes much higher, his team executed the gameplan perfectly.

Led by quarterback Levi Fulkerson’s 42 carries on the night, the Norse ground down No. 3 Southwood, limiting the Knights’ time on the field en route to a 14-6 upset in the sectional semi-final.

“They did what we told them to do,” Baker said of how his side was able to pull off the upset. “Coming into it, we knew (Southwood) had a lot of team speed and were pretty athletic and we thought the best chance we had to win was to keep it between the tackles. Just make a big pile and get three yards. We drilled in our guys’ heads all week ‘Three yards is a great play’ because we’re going to go for it on 4th-and-1 every time. And they did that. They did that. 

“It wasn’t a sexy game by any means but what an effort by Levi (Fulkerson) all game and our offensive line just to make a pile and push forward to get three yards. If their offense isn’t on the field, they’re not going to score. And they executed. And what an effort by our defense, holding the No. 3 team in the state to six points. What an effort.”

In that same mid-September, Baker also questioned his offensive line, an area of expected strength coming into the year that had underperformed to that point in the season. On Friday, they were key to the Norse win, helping Northfield rush for 182 yards on 59 attempts, or 3.08 yards per carry in what Baker called a “huge” performance.

“They did a great job of pushing the pile and that’s exactly what we wanted to do,” he said. “We couldn’t have executed a gameplan any better. We really couldn’t have. I’m glad that they bought in and they trusted us to come up with it. Ultimately, they’re the ones that have to go out and execute it but they did. I hope that they continue to do that.”

Northfield set the tone on the first drive of the night. Receiving the opening kickoff after Southwood deferred to the second half, Northfield chewed up 7:33 of clock on a 16-play drive that covered 66 yards, ending in a six-yard touchdown run from Graydon Holmes.

“That was huge,” Baker said. “It was going to be very important for us to score that first possession. To do it how we did it, taking a lot of time off the clock, that was beautiful. We knew that they’ve got big-play capabilities. A lot of their scores come on big plays. If their offense wasn’t on the field, they can’t score. We did an awesome job of executing the game plan.”

Southwood offered an instant response, something it would scarcely do on the night, thanks to some of that big-play capability. A facemask by the Norse negated an interception by Seth Forsyth and two plays later, Alex Farr found a streaking Carson Rich for a 25-yard gain to take the Knights down to the goal line.

Facing a fourth-and-goal after failing to gain any ground toward the endzone, the tandem hooked up once more with Rich reeling in an over-the-shoulder grab for a touchdown. The ensuing extra point would be no good, though, as Southwood trailed 7-6.

From there, the two teams swapped out drives of Northfield chewing away large chunks of the clock and Southwood failing to make good on the big plays. 

A drive of over five minutes for Northfield ended with an interception by Connor Rich. Southwood responded with a drive of less than two minutes that covered just 19 yards before turning the ball over on downs. Fulkerson would be picked off once more, this time by Sutton, but Southwood’s miscue was far more costly on its next drive.

Facing a punt after a three-and-out at the Southwood 34-yard line, a high snap sailed over Farr’s head and would be recovered by Braden Ripplinger and returned to the three-yard line. Fulkerson plunged in from a yard out three plays later and Northfield opened up the lead to 14-6 with 49 seconds left in the first half.

Southwood would cross midfield on the last drive of the second quarter by a pair sacks ended the drive and the half. The Knights again threatened to open the second half thanks to a fortunate bounce as the opening kick-off careened off an up-man for the Knights and was recovered at midfield.

Southwood quickly gained 19 yards on consecutive passes but managed one yard on the next three plays, turning the ball over on downs.

Instead, the half belonged to Fulkerson. The senior, who did not start the first meeting against the Knights under center before coming back at halftime, was dominant in the half, calling his own number time and time again to keep Norse drives rolling.

The senior continued to gain yards in small chunks of two and three yards on carries up the middle. While none of the drives ended in paydirt, the main objective of chewing down the clock was being fulfilled.

“That’s what (Levi) saw,” Baker said. “Like I said, we just wanted to make a big pile and try to get three yards. The play design was set up to go off-tackle but when they started moving people in the A-gaps, he just kind of went around into the B-gap. He did that on his own. He’s a smart kid. Again, three yards is what we were trying to get every play. Get three yards and keep the clock rolling. Very proud of the effort our guys gave tonight.”

Northfield took nearly five minutes off the clock before handing the ball back to Southwood midway through the third quarter.

After seeing Southwood drive into the endzone before coming up short once more, Northfield took over another five minutes off the clock on a drive that stretch into the fourth quarter. Southwood would get the ball back at its own 16-yard line after a punt and would promptly go three-and-out in 67 seconds.

The sides traded fruitless drives before Southwood took over at the Knight 20-yard line after a failed fourth-down conversion with 5:02 left. Methodically, Fulkerson carried the ball six straight times to get the Norse down to the four-yard line. An incomplete pass on 3rd-and-goal set up a 21-yard field goal attempt with 1:54 left in the game that missed wide left.

With one last gasp as tying the game, Southwood immediately connected on passes of 15, 10 and six yards to Dawson Filip, Carson Heath and Gabe Lloyd, respectively, to cross midfield. With no timeouts, a spike and an incompletion set up 4th-and-4 for the Knights before Farr found Filip once more for nine yards, taking Southwood to the Norse 40-yard line.

That would be the last play of positive yardage for Southwood has four straight completions ended the game as time expired, sealing the Norse upset.

Fulkerson finished the game with 42 carries for 115 yards and a touchdown on the ground while throwing for 14 yards on 2-of-9 passing with a pair of interceptions.

“He’s been huge,” Baker said. “He was always a good running threat for us and his passing is what was suspect and he has worked on that and gotten much better at that and he’s going to have to continue to do that. The good news is we get another week to practice it. Not a lot of teams do. We’re very fortunate to have an opportunity to keep practicing and have a chance to play for a sectional championship.”

Northfield won the time of possession battle, holding the ball for 30:58 compared to Southwood’s 17:02.

Farr finished 13-for-32 through the air for 114 yards and a score. Rich caught three passes for 46 yards and the touchdown. Lloyd had nine rushes for 41 yards in the loss. Southwood managed just only 147 yards of offense while Northfield had 196 in the win.

The victory is the first for the Norse over the Knights since Sep. 2, 2016. It’s also the first sectional win over Southwood since Oct. 30, 2015. 

The Norse advance to the sectional final against Adams Central at home on Friday. The Flying Jets knocked off North Miami 40-22 in the other sectional semi-final.