In a game where Columbus North’s offense was hamstrung by injuries to its top two running backs, the Bull Dogs defense and special teams took center stage in the fourth quarter Friday night.
Harley Huser returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown to give North the lead. Then after Southport tied it with a field goal, Brigham Kleinhenz blocked a punt to set up Mark Salle-Tabor’s 30-yard field goal at the gun that gave the Bull Dogs a 32-29 senior night victory.
The win allows North (8-1, 6-1) to finish in sole possession of second place in Conference Indiana. The Cardinals (5-4, 5-2) finished third.
The Bull Dogs trailed 23-14 at halftime and 26-21 after three quarters. But then Huser fielded a bouncing punt at his own 38, shook off a couple defenders and headed for the end zone.
“You just want to be careful and make sure you get a clean bounce in that scenario,” Huser said. “I saw that ball bouncing, and I just grabbed it, and I looked up and scanned the field and my team made a bunch of great blocks.”
After a Southport penalty on the extra point put the ball at the 1½, Cortez Bandy took it in to give the Bull Dogs a 29-26 lead with 10:12 remaining.
North got the ball back on J.D. Harris’ second interception of the game, but then turned it back over on a Cardinals interception. Hunter Cocherell’s third field goal of the game tied it at 29 with 6:40 left.
Southport got the ball back again and drove into Bull Dogs territory, but this time, North blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt by Cocherell. After the Bull Dogs punted, they stopped the Cardinals. Kleinhenz blocked a rollout punt and returned it to the Cardinals 26 with 1:28 remaining.
Five plays later, Salle-Tabor converted, but not before Southport timeout to ice him.
“I just tried to stay calm and collected,” Salle-Tabor said. “Triston (Perry) had a perfect hold. With them throwing off with the timeout, it was just another feeling of ‘I’ve got this; I need to be calm.’ I followed through, kicked the ball and I made it.”
The Bull Dogs went with a limited running game with standout back Mitchell Burton coming off a sprained ankle in last week’s loss at Bloomington South. Burton still saw spot duty, carrying 12 times for 67 yards.
Bandy carried 13 times for 31 yards, leaving at one point in the third quarter because of cramps. But he returned to score on a 2-yard run and the 2-point conversion.
“It was tough without our key running backs,” North coach Tim Bless said. “Fortunately, we have some time to get them healthy heading into the tournament.”
The Bull Dogs got on the board first in the game. After Harris intercepted a pass to stop Southport’s first drive, Perry found Jaylen Flemmons for an 8-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The Cardinals answered with a little trickery. Schott threw a lateral pass to Blake Evans, who threw to a wide open Justice Demers for a 67-yard touchdown. North blocked the extra point.
Perry and Flemmons then hooked up again for a 38-yard score. But then Schott found Demers for 10 yards and Matt Johnston for 11 for a 20-14 Southport lead.
Hunter Cocherell’s 21-yard field goal on the next-to-last play of the first half gave the Cardinals a 23-14 lead.
Southport finished with 346 yards through the air, including 279 by Schott.
“We struggled at times defensively, and Southport is an incredibly dynamic offense, and we knew we weren’t going to shut them out,” Bless said. “But we had the goal going into the week that we were going to make them earn everything they got. By and large, we made them drive the field, and then we buckled down in the red zone, like you see so much at the next level against spread offenses.”