The Swanton Bulldogs etched a brand-new line into the historical context of their football program by going on the road and defeating the Northwestern Huskies 40-29 to notch their first ever playoff win away from the comfortable confines of Hansberger Stadium. But it was far from the blowout win it appeared all but certain to be in the first half.
Despite carrying a 27-0 lead into the locker room at halftime and holding a 33-7 advantage to start the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs had a difficult time holding on to the ball in the second half, losing four fumbles and allowing the potent Husky offense to score 22 points in the final frame.
The furious Northwestern comeback kept the Swanton faithful on the on the edge of their seats and the coaching staff searching for a way to stop the bleeding until Chase Avalos broke free for first down with under a minute left in the game. The big run allowed the Bulldogs to run out the clock and move on to the next round for the second consecutive year.
“We got some things to learn,” said relieved Swanton coach Mike Vicars after the game. “There were a lot of snaps and we got tired. We don’t see this high-flying thing they brought to the table tonight. But you can’t turn the ball over and expect to keep on living. We got to fix that.”
The game actually began with a turnover as the Bulldogs fumbled away the opening kickoff. Fortunately, their defense held the Huskies to a field goal attempt and Jonny Shanks slipped around the right side and blocked the kick to keep the contest scoreless.
Swanton picked up a couple of first downs on their initial possession but were forced to punt when their drive stalled. Northwestern could not move the ball either and had their punt attempt blocked, giving Swanton the ball deep in Husky territory. The Bulldogs cashed in when Gunnar Oakes ran in from 14 yards out and led 7-0 with Nick Kobak’s extra point.
The second quarter was completely dominated by Swanton. Oakes scored his second touchdown on a pass from Marek Spiess to put the visiting Dogs up 14-0 after the PAT and running back Michael Lawnizcak found the end zone twice, once from two yards out and the other from five. Only a late interception deep in the Northwestern end kept the game from going to a running clock to start the second half.
The Huskies took the second half kickoff and roared down the field scoring on a Brock Thut to Tristan Ammon 29-yard touchdown pass to the middle of the end zone. Swanton answered with a sustained drive and Spiess tossed up a jump ball from nine yards away to Oakes in the left corner of the end zone making the score 33-7 after a failed PAT.
Northwestern refused to quit and put another drive together culminating with a two-yard plunge across the goal line by Thut on the first play of the fourth quarter to pull within 33-14. After another Bulldog turnover Thut punched it in from the six-yard line and the Huskies were within 11 points, 33-22, after a successful two-point conversion.
On the next Swanton possession Avalos broke off a long run down to the one-yard line and Lawnizcak dove into the end zone from there for his third score of the contest to put the Bulldogs on top 40-22. The high-powered Northwestern offense scored again to restore the 11-point deficit and then recovered another fumble on the kickoff return.
Thankfully, the Bulldog defense came up with a crucial interception and Swanton held on for the 40-29 victory.
“We’re happy to be moving on,” said Coach Vicars after the nail-biting win. “The hardest win in the football playoffs is always the first one. Hey, we won and we’re happy with that and our guys got stretched and it made them better football players because of it.”
Statistically, the Bulldogs racked up 428 yards of total offense with 290 of it coming on the ground. Avalos led the rushing attack with 137 yards on 11 carries and Lawnizcak rushed 22 times for 83 tough yards. Spiess completed 81.2% of his passes going 13 of 16 for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Oakes hauled in nine of those passes for 94 yards and the two scores.
Swanton now travels to Clyde High School to take on the region’s number one seeded Norwayne Bobcats, a first round 28-6 winner over the Genoa Comets. The game will be on Saturday, November 12 with a 7:00 pm starting time.
Bill O’Connell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org