MAPLE — Northwestern football coach Jovin Kroll addressed his team Friday night after its nonconference game against Rice Lake, saying it was the craziest game in terms of momentum swings that he had ever been a part of.
Kroll wasn’t kidding. This one was the football equivalent of a yo-yo, and fortunately for the Tigers, they came out on top.
Tanner Kaufman scored on a couple big plays as Northwestern held on for a 28-20 victory over the Warriors on a misty overcast night. It was the first time the programs had played each other since 1986, with Rice Lake outgrowing the Heart O’ North.
“That was one of the best nonconference games we’ve had in a long time,” said Kroll, who said this year’s Tigers squad is the deepest he has had in his six years with the program, including the past five as head coach. “Having an opportunity to play a program from a much bigger conference, a successful conference like the Big Rivers, to be able to hang in there and slug it out with those guys for four quarters and come out on top is a really big win for us.”
Kaufman helped give the Tigers (2-0) a 14-0 halftime lead on an 81-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Luke Sedin, and the junior later helped seal it on a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“When you hear that crowd go off, it’s something else,” Kaufman said about making big plays. “It’s electric.”
Kaufman, a junior in his first year as a starter, already has four TDs this season, two receiving, one rushing and one on an interception. He also had a fumble recovery in the second half one play after Northwestern had coughed the ball up, a huge momentum swing that proved too difficult for Rice Lake to overcome.
One could say Kaufman was in the right place at the right time for that one, but Kroll didn’t see it that way.
“Certain players seem to be in the right place at the right time more than others, and Tanner is one of those players,” Kroll said. “He’s a game-changer.”
Rice Lake has a gamechanger in its own right with senior wide receiver/defensive back Alex Belongia, who had two interceptions, including one he returned 23 yards for a score. But Belongia, sometimes going against triple teams, also had a reception knocked away in the end zone at the last second and couldn’t haul in an overthrow in the second half when he was wide open.
It was that kind of day for the Warriors (1-1).
“We had our chances but lost focus at times,” Rice Lake coach Dan Hill said. “If you were fans, you got your money’s worth, but for coaches, we got a little more gray hair.”
In the end, Kaufman and Co. just made one more big play. Tigers running back Austin Schlies did most of the damage in the first half, finishing with 73 yards on 16 carries. But after Rice Lake made halftime adjustments, it was fellow senior Greg Ohman doing the damage for the Tigers in the second half, finishing with 20 carries for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, it was Kaufman who proved to be the backbreaker. Kaufman was asked if there was anything he couldn’t do.
He laughed and said, “I don’t kick.”
Fortunately, the Tigers have a pretty good one doing that in senior Dawson Kriske.