Tigers top Pirates in opener
It wasn’t a lengthy drive.
And it didn’t come close to generating any points.
But it might have been the most important offensive series in Northwestern’s 36-28 season-opening victory over Palisades Friday night.
After forcing the Pirates to punt in the later stages of the fourth quarter and clinging to an eight-point lead, the Tigers watched as the football rolled and rolled and rolled - eventually being downed on their 1-yard line.
With 3:55 left to play, the last thing Tiger head coach Josh Snyder’s team wanted to do was give the ball back to their opponent with a decent amount of time and with good field position.
Enter Nick Henry and this year’s new offensive line.
Henry, a senior, ran seven times for 26 hard-fought yards as the Tigers picked up a pair of crucial first downs. While Snyder’s club did eventually have to give up the ball, they did so after Palisades burned its timeouts and left the Pirates only 23 seconds to try and go 59 yards for a possible tying score.
Out of desperation, the visitors were forced to throw deep. Northwestern’s Jacob Peters intercepted their final attempt, which sealed the win.
“I was proud of our line there,” said Snyder. “We actually dug out from the one (a couple) times where we got first downs and gave ourselves a chance to punt it and then play defense. That was a good, gutty effort for our linemen and Nick. He got some tough yards in there, grinding things out and keeping it on the ground.
“And he made some people miss in space. It was just everything you expect from a senior that’s a three-year starter.”
One thing he didn’t expect from Henry, also the team’s punter, was his holding the ball before he had to boot it away.
“We didn’t call that, he just did it,” said Snyder. “He’s just that savvy enough that he burns off a couple more seconds there. He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve been around in my coaching career. He runs the show, really, on both sides of the ball.”
Henry made his presence felt earlier in the contest, helping his team recover from an early deficit.
Moments after Mason Smeland gave Palisades a 14-7 lead with an 18-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, Henry broke loose for a 41-yard scamper that set up his 6-yard tally to a tie game.
The Tigers went ahead later in that frame as new starting quarterback Justin Holmes raced to the end zone from 34 yards out. Before the quarter ended, Holmes and Henry hooked up on a 9-yard TD pass that allowed their team to gain a 29-14 halftime margin.
“It was the first game of the year, and although it’s two weeks late it was great to get out here,” said Henry, who finished with 119 yards rushing and caught six passes for 60 more yards. “Even though we don’t have spectators, we don’t have a student section to pump us up, it’s great we have the senior parents here to watch us for our final season.”
It was also great that the Tigers were able to answer after the Pirates cut into their advantage.
Palisades scored the first time it touched the ball in the second half, but Snyder’s squad again put some distance between the two teams when Holmes went up top to Cade Christopher. The sophomore got free between the Pirates’ defense and finished off a 53-yard catch-and-run TD that pushed the margin to 36-21.
“Cade is a kid who we brought up as a freshman,” said Snyder. “He had an Achilles thing or a foot thing that kept him out his entire freshman year. He’s a backup quarterback and he’s got a lot of wiggle in him and a lot of speed.
“We knew what he was capable of and when the lights came on, he’s what I call a gamer. He made two huge touchdown catches and on defense he played corner and was making some sticks.”
Snyder also knows what Holmes is capable of, although he’s the first to admit there will be some growing pains to go along with success.
The junior completed 10 passes for 169 yards and three touchdowns, but was also intercepted five times.
“Justin did some good things and he did some bad things,” said Snyder. “And that’s what you have to expect from a first-year guy under center. I’m super proud of him. I know he’s going to be the toughest person on himself, but he’s going to get better. He’s going to have an incredible jump from Week 1 to Week 2 for him and the rest of team.”
Fortunately for the Tigers, Week 2 will start with a 1-0 record - with that win not being secured until the final minute thanks to Henry and Co.
“The ball on the one is kind of a bad situation,” said Henry. “But we executed very well and got out of it, and we ended up punting and then we stopped them on defense.”