HUDSON, Wis. -- Northwestern went into Friday night’s playoff game against St. Croix Central with a chip on its shoulder, and try as they might, the Panthers couldn’t knock it off.
The Tigers scored a pair of first-half touchdowns and never let the Panthers’ offense get on track to earn a hard-fought 14-0 decision in a Division 3 defensive battle in Hudson.
It was the third straight shutout for the Tiger defense while St. Croix Central failed to score for the first time since the 2017 season. The game was moved to Hudson due to unplayable field conditions in Hammond.
The teams have a history of meeting in the playoffs, with St. Croix Central beating Northwestern three straight years from 2016-18 on their way to the state championship game. Panther coach John Tackman said that gave the Tigers some extra motivation coming into Friday night’s matchup.
“They came out and wanted this really bad,” he said. “They wanted to avenge a couple of losses from the past that we put on them in the playoffs. But give it to them, they’re a good football team.”
After forcing Northwestern to turn the ball over on downs on the first possession of the game, St. Croix Central fumbled the ball right back near midfield and Northwestern capitalized with a 10-yard touchdown run from 5-8, 230-pound fullback Brennen Werner.
St. Croix Central reached the Tiger 21 yard-line late in the first quarter but a 4th-and-8 pass fell incomplete, and Werner broke free for 49 yards during a clock-chewing drive to set up his own 1-yard scoring plunge and make it a 14-0 game with just over three minutes remaining in the half.
St. Croix Central, meanwhile, couldn’t get anything going on offense, punting from their own territory five straight times before a 25-yard punt return by Joel McGrane set them up near midfield with 4:52 remaining. But Tadan Holzer’s pass over the middle intended for McGrane was tipped and picked off by Northwestern’s Colin Trautt.
The Panthers had one last chance from their own 25 with 1:37 left, but three incomplete passes and a fourth down sack sealed the win for the Tigers.
Tackman said the Panthers struggled up front and couldn’t recover after falling behind early.
“The turnover and then them scoring, then we had a kid fall which led to a long run by them,” he noted. “It was hard to battle back, especially with two running teams. You start losing and the clock runs and you’re losing possessions; it’s a tough game.”
Northwestern had a 245-79 advantage in total yardage, with 122 coming from the legs of Werner. The Tigers improved to 6-1 and will travel to Ellsworth for a Level 2 playoff game Thursday night while Tackman said the Panthers, who slipped to 6-2, will take advantage of WIAA postseason guidelines and try to find an opponent for next week.
“My goal was to play nine games,” he said. “We’ll obviously have to figure out who’s available, who’s around, who’s still playing. I know people are dropping all the time right now. So we’ll start talking to other schools that are left. I wanted to give these kids nine football games, and we’re going to do our best to give them nine football games.”
Somerset blanked by Ellsworth
Ellsworth running back Max Grand was a one-man wrecking crew against Somerset Friday night, accounting for 333 total yards and scoring five times in the Panthers’ 44-0 victory over Somerset in their Division 3 playoff opener in Ellsworth.
Grand rushed for 294 yards and four touchdowns and added a 39-yard touchdown catch through the air as the Panthers remained undefeated at 6-0 and advanced to host Northwestern in a Level 2 game this week.
Grand had touchdown runs of 67 and 16 yards in the first quarter and caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Mason Anderson in the second, and the Panthers converted all three two-point conversions to take a 24-0 halftime lead.
Jack Janke scored from 12-yards out in the third quarter and Grand added touchdown runs of 17 and 42 yards to make the final 44-0.
The Spartans turned the ball over three times in the game and failed to convert on a 4th-and-3 at the Ellsworth 10 in the first half.
Quarterback Tate Pitcher ran the ball 24 times for 118 yards and was 0-for-2 passing while no other Spartan rushed for more than 12 yards. Somerset finished the season with a record of 3-4.