By RON DEUTER
CRYSTAL FALLS - A potentially disastrous start turned into a defining victory for the Forest Park Trojans Friday night at Dick Mettlach Field.
Theresa Proudfit/The Daily News Photo
Forest Park’s Lee Graff looks for extra yards against North Dickinson’s defense Friday night at Dick Mettlach Field. Nordics pictured, from left, include Colin Roell, Reggie Johnson, Logan O’Neil, Brad Gustafson.
With Lee Graff running for a game-high 144 yards with three touchdowns and Jeff Johnson passing for 127 yards and one score, the Trojans remained unbeaten and clinched a playoff berth with a 43-20 win over rival North Dickinson.
"It was one of those starts that looked like it was going to be a nightmare," Forest Park head coach Bill Santilli said. "When you start our as poorly as we did and then end up scoring the first touchdown of the game, that's just a stroke of luck right there."
Forest Park lost a fumble on their very first play from scrimmage, but a hit on North Dickinson quarterback Logan O'Neil a few plays later put the ball back on the turf, and Johnson picked it up and ran 67 yards for the game's opening points.
"We got pushed around and outplayed in the first quarter starting with that fumble on very first snap," Santilli said. "I think (getting the fumble recovery for touchdown) gave us enough momentum and confidence to hang in there and not really panic or fall apart."
North Dickinson answered with points of their own, as Matt Schultz, nearly unstoppable in the first quarter, capped a nine-play drive with a seven-yard score up the gut. Schultz finished with 142 yards on 27 carries.
"Schultz was having a great game," Santilli said. "He was chewing up yards."
As the half rolled on, it appeared the Trojans and Nordics were headed for a shootout, with the teams trading the lead three more times. But another Nordic fumble late in the half turned the tide in a hurry.
With the Nordics near midfield and trailing 20-13, O'Neil rolled out looking to pass. Hit from behind, the ball popped out and was recovered by Forest Park's Kyle Soderberg.
The Trojans had just 41 seconds to work with, but on second and seven from the Nordics' 43, Johnson aired one out to Graff. Double covered, Graff won the jump ball and came down with a remarkable catch inside the 10-yard line. A few plays later with just two seconds left on the clock, Graff took a direct snap and rolled around the left side and into the end zone.
Graff had 94 yards of his
rushing total by the half. He scored his third touchdown early in the third quarter, a two-yard plunge, as Forest Park opened a 36-13 lead.
With The Trojans defense holding North Dickinson to three and out on each of its first two possessions of the second half, Forest Park's lead grew to 43-13, as Johnson connected with Daniel Nocerini on a 32-yard, perfectly-thrown, in-stride bomb to the back of the end zone.
"They are an awesome football team," Nordics coach Joe Reddinger said. "They have some skilled people. Some of those passes, those were big time with big time catches.
"They just had some better athletes than we could put on the field. They made the plays and we didn't. In a game like this, you have to make plays. They didn't make a whole lot of mistakes."
Johnson, a perfect five-for-five with his aerials, made big throws on each of the Trojans' first-half scoring drives. Forest Park's second touchdown, to take a 12-7 lead was set up by a 35-yard pass to Graff. Johnson finished that drive with a two-yard sneak.
After North Dickinson answered with Logan O'Neil hitting Justin Clark for a 28-yard touchdown, Johnson set the Trojans up again with a 48-yard deep ball to Austin Snell. That set up a first and goal that Graff finished from one yard out.
"We started off slowly, but the guys are sticking to game plan, believing in what we are trying to accomplish and not panicking," Santilli said. "As long as we don't fall too far behind, we feel at some point, with the diversity we have, we should be able to exploit some of the things we do well."
Johnson totaled 127 yards with his five completions.
"We really like the individual capabilities of what some of these guys can do," Santilli said. "Johnson was right on tonight, threw the perfect ball, and we made the catches. You don't always see that at this level, but things went our way, and I have to give credit to those guys for the pays they made."
North Dickinson's final score came in late in the fourth when O'Neil ran one in from five yards out.
The Nordics, already without their best runner with an injury to Tim Hruska, also lost Noah Berg midway through the contest. Berg was a solid compliment to Schultz in the first half with 74 yards on eight trips.
"Once we lost him," Reddinger said. "Well, we're just not that deep. But we still have a chance to be a good team. We just have to have others step up and get things going."
Connor Kezerle led Forest Park with 10 solo and two assisted tackles. Zach Aberly had six solo and two assisted stops.
Forest Park, now 6-0, plays at Baraga Friday.
"All in all I have to be very pleased with the final outcome of the game," Santilli said. "We hung in there we played really well. I don't want to take anything away from our team, and I want to give credit to North Dickinson because they are a very fine football team. The score was not indicative of how this game went."
Also playoff bound, ND (5-1) hosts North Central Friday with a chance to win the Mid-Eastern Conference.
"Our biggest game of year is next week for conference outright," Reddinger said. "And that's what we're looking for."
North Dickinson 7 6 0 7 - 20
Forest Park 6 22 15 0 - 43
FP - Jeff Johnson 67 fumble return (run failed), 7:16.
ND - Matt Schultz 7 run (Logan O'Neil kick), 2:59
FP - Johnson 2 run (pass failed), 9:05.
ND - Justin Clark 28 pass from O'Neil (kick failed), 5:30.
FP - Lee Graff 1 run (Graff pass from Johnson), 3:08.
FP - Graff 9 run (Daniel Nocerini pass from Johnson), 0:02.
FP - Graff 2 run (Billy Ragio pass from Johnson), 8:05.
FP - Nocerini 32 pass from Johnson (Brett Smithson kick), 4:03.
ND - O'Neil 5 run (O'Neil kick), 4:10.
Total Yards - North Dickinson 306 (278 run, 28 pass); Forest Park 342 (215 run, 127 pass).
Rushing leaders - ND: Schultz 27-142, Noah Berg 9-70, Derek Wagner 8-41; FP: Graff 15-144, Raymond Tomasik 7-26, Austin Snell 5-25.
Receiving leaders - ND: Clark 1-28; FP: Snell 1-48, Nocerini 4-45, Graff 1-34.
Passing - ND: O'Neil 1-6-28-1-1; FP: Johnson 5-5-127-1-0.
Interceptions - ND: None; FP: Connor Kezerle.
First downs - ND: 14; FP: 11.
Penalties - ND: 3-15; FP: 4-20.