Niagara, Wis. - Northern Elite came up 10 yards short of 8-0.
In a bone-jarring M&O/Northern Lakes Conference crossover battle that felt every bit like a playoff contest, Peshtigo scored a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and held off the Predators 22-18 Friday night at Marv Ropele Field.
"They're an outstanding football team," Predators coach Ben Laarman said. "They're a deeper and stronger football than we are, and I think that showed through in the fourth quarter."
Theresa Proudfit/The Daily News Photo
Northern Elite's Patrick Moreau looks for room to run.
The Predators, thanks to a 21-yard field goal by Adam Parent, built an 18-7 lead on the one-loss Bulldogs late in the third quarter. But a spectacular 65-yard kick return by Jake Veness and two-point conversion brought the Bulldogs right back as the game moved into the fourth quarter.
"They are very effective with their pooch kick," Peshtigo coach Sam Komp said. "So we practiced it all week. We shifted to that side and had a running back there instead of a tight end. We worked on running up the sideline, and that's what he did."
An interception by Levi Sanborn early in the fourth gave the Bulldogs the ball at midfield. On fourth and 10, instead of punting, Peshtigo quarterback Dakota Keller aired out a bomb down the left sideline for 6-foot-4 Jake Romenseko. The sophomore wideout won the jump and came down with the ball inside the Predators' 10 yard line.
"It was just a heck of a play," Laarman said. "A perfect pass, and he out-jumped us. It's a low-percentage play, but they made the play and we didn't."
A few tries later, fullback Michael Vojcihoski - on his only carry of the game - plowed in for a three-yard score to put the Bulldogs in front.
Northern Elite, struggling to move the ball in the fourth quarter, had one last chance to re-take the lead when Tarzis Maurer blocked a punt with about 4:40 left to play. Northern Elite took over at the Peshtigo 10 but couldn't crack the end zone. A third down pass on a slant was in the intended receiver's hands but popped out thanks to a big hit by Peshtigo.
On fourth down, quarterback Joey Swanson retreated to pass again. He scrambled madly looking for an open receiver but wound up taking a 22-yard loss on a sack.
"What a great job our kids did to hold them," Komp said. "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."
Peshtigo took over and managed to gain the one first down they needed in order to run out the clock.
"We couldn't move the ball at all in the fourth quarter," Laarman said. "It's frustrating. The more things went wrong, the more we started to trust it less."
Northern Elite took the lead first in the game, marching down the field and capping with it with a three-yard run by Swanson. The PAT was blocked.
Peshtigo answered following their first of two picks of Swanson. Starting at their own 42, the Bulldogs got a pair of big runs by D.J. Messenger and Steve Strojny before Keller snuck in from the one. A kick made it 7-6 Bulldogs midway through the second.
The Bulldogs had lost running back Trevor Igl early in the game with a wrist injury.
Northern Elite re-took the lead late in the half when Peshtigo was pinned inside their own five and Jake Pedrotti slammed Keller for a loss and a safety.
Then on the ensuing Predators possession, Swanson led his team on a quick 50-yard drive. He found the end zone from three yards out with less than a minute left before the break to stake the Predators to a 15-7.
Swanson finished with 67 yards on the ground, 57 of those coming in the first half. He threw for 147 yards, completing 7-of-15.
"They are the best team we've played all year, no question," Komp said. "They had us on our heels. They are very effective with what they do, have outstanding offensive schemes.
"Swanson is like mercury. He's here, he's there, he's everywhere. He's so hard to defend."
Peshtigo limited the Predators to under 30 yards on the ground in the second half before the sack of Swanson late.
"Suddenly we began to play with heart and emotion, and that takes you farther than coaching," Komp said. "We didn't do anything differently, just did it better."
Northern Elite, now 7-1 (4-1 NLC), looks to wrap up the conference title Friday at White Lake/Elcho.
"We'll learn and grow and hopefully make a big improvement next week and a run in the playoffs," Laarman said.
Peshtigo0787 - 22
Northern Elite6930 - 18
NEP - Joey Swanson 3 run (kick blocked), 4:12.
P - Dakota Keller 1 run (Zack Neumann kick), 4:41.
NEP - Safety, 1:50*
NEP - Swanson 3 run (Adam Parent kick), 0:40*.
NEP - Parent 21 field goal, 2:10*
P - Jake Veness 65 kick return (Jake Romenesko pass from Keller), 1:50*
P - Michael Vojcihoski 3 run (Neumann kick), 7:50*
*Times are approximate, as scoreboard clock display malfunctioned.
Total Yards - Peshtigo 211 (147 run, 64 pass); Northern Elite 242 (143 run, 147 pass).
Rushing leaders - P: Steve Strojny 10-46, Keller 9-42, D.J. Messenger 8-71; NEP: Jake Pedrotti 13-92, Swanson 26-67.
Receiving leaders - P: Romenesko 2-52; NEP: Trent Heath 5-83.
Passing - P: Keller 5-18-64-0-1; Swanson 7-15-99-0-2.
Interceptions - P: Messenger, Levi Sanborn; N: Swanson.
First downs - P: 12; NEP : 11.
Penalties - P: 6-40; NEP: 9-65.