Panthers’ defense doesn’t wilt in season opener

Despite making seven turnovers, North edges South 7-0

Lakeville North's Tristyn Hanson carries the ball during his team's 7-0 victory over Lakeville South. Photo by Rick Orndorf
Lakeville North’s Tristyn Hanson carries the ball during his team’s 7-0 victory over Lakeville South. Photo by Rick Orndorf

The 11th chapter of the Lakeville North-Lakeville South football rivalry might become known as one of the strangest.

The game had more turnovers (12) than points in North’s 7-0 home-field victory on Aug. 29. In one stretch, the ball changed hands three times in five plays.

Fans might have been tempted to check for a full moon, but there wasn’t one. It was just a typical season opener in which coaches brace for ragged play.

“Yeah, it was ugly,” Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen said. “But you know what? That’s what you get when you do a rivalry game in Week 1. I’m hoping in the future our conference (South Suburban) schedules the rivalry games for later in the season.”

North’s victory was its fourth in a row over South and gave the Panthers a 6-5 lead in the series.

The game’s standout unit was the Lakeville North defense, which held Lakeville South to 91 yards of offense and forced five turnovers. Lakeville South was in Lakeville North’s half of the field on five possessions, but three times the Cougars started there after Panther turnovers.

North’s plan was to put as much pressure on the South quarterbacks as possible while playing a deep zone to cut off big plays. If South was going to complete a pass, North wanted it to be a short throw with its defenders moving forward. It worked; South’s longest completed pass was for 7 yards.

“Our guys did a great job up front, and it helps to have people like Greg Menard and Jack Goeman, who are two very good defensive linemen,” Vossen said. “One time we blitzed Greg out of the play and he still ended up making the tackle for no gain.”

The Cougars, who were shut out despite receiving seven North turnovers, couldn’t be faulted for wondering “What just happened?” as they left North’s stadium. South coach Larry Thompson said a big play early by his team could have changed the complexion of the game.

And South almost got one. The Cougars ran a wingback pass on their first play from scrimmage and had receiver Luke Iverson running alone behind the North defense. But the ball was overthrown.

“That was one of about five plays we could have made that would have made a difference,” Thompson said. “Our receiver was wide open on that first play. We missed two field goals. We made a great play to get a turnover and then gave the ball right back.

“But our defense played great,” Thompson added. “If they play like that all year, we’ll win a lot of games.”

In the first half, South’s defense recovered fumbles at the North 15 and the North 26-yard line. The Cougars’ Grant Moesser also returned an interception to the North 22. They resulted in zero points as South couldn’t advance inside the North 10 and had the two missed field goal attempts.

In the final minute of the first half, South fumbled at the end of what would have been a 19-yard gain and the Panthers recovered. On the next play, North’s sophomore quarterback Drew Stewart completed a 60-yard pass to Conner Flack for the game’s only touchdown.

North was able to control the ball for much of the second half behind the running of senior Jamiah Newell, who gained 155 yards on 33 carries.

Stewart had four interceptions in his first varsity start, but Vossen praised his quarterback’s play.

“It’s Week 1, his first game, and it’s against the most high-pressure opponent we have to play,” Vossen said. “He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he handled it well.”

Stewart’s counterpart, South junior Brenon Larson-Gulsvig, battled cramps that eventually forced him out of the game in the third quarter. Mitch Wolkow, also a junior, completed the game at quarterback.

The Cougars expected some growing pains for an inexperienced offensive line, but this week doesn’t offer much relief. The Cougars play host to Wayzata in a non-conference game at 8 p.m. Sept. 6. Wayzata, one of the state’s traditional large-school powers, defeated Rosemount 24-21 in double overtime last week.

Lakeville North will try to clean up its turnover issues in time for its game against Bloomington Kennedy at 7 p.m. Sept. 6 at Bloomington Stadium. Kennedy lost to Bloomington Jefferson 25-20 in its opener.