KENDALLVILLE — NorthWood's offense put on another show, and yet its defense somehow stole the show on a night the Panthers cracked 50 points for the seventh time this season.
Black Crunch defenders feasted on four takeaways — and none felt insignificant at the time, never mind the final spread — as visiting NorthWood downed unrelenting East Noble 52-24 for its first sectional football crown in five years Friday.
The Class 4A No. 2-ranked Panthers (12-0) advanced to a regional showdown of unbeatens at home next week against No. 3 New Haven (11-0).
"It's an awesome feeling, especially after our season got cut short like it did last year," senior linebacker Jake Stump said, referring to NorthWood's narrow sectional title-game loss to a Plymouth club it had beaten during the 2015 regular season.
"We had a lot of veterans out there making plays tonight," Stump declared.
Not the least of those being Stump, who raced 91 yards for an apparent third-quarter touchdown after teammate DeAndre Smart stripped the ball from a Knight running back who was eyeing the end zone in an open-field situation.
Stump's TD was wiped out by offsetting, post-possession penalties, but ultimately, it didn't matter.
NorthWood suddenly had the ball, after all, just when it looked as if East Noble (8-3), trailing 38-24, was going to turn the game into a one-score deficit to cap a sustained drive.
"That completely shifted the momentum," Stump said, crediting Smart for the play. "They were pounding the ball on us, and it was just what we needed."
The Panthers began a monster march, going 91 yards in 15 plays while chewing 6:33 off the clock and ending it with Brayton Yoder's touchdown for a 45-24 spread at 9:38 remaining.
"They were huge, weren't they?" NorthWood coach Nate Andrews said, referencing each of his team's takeaways. "We knew (East Noble) would be able to move the ball, but we kept hoping and praying we would make them continue to snap the ball. They may score at times, but if you keep making them snap the ball (rather than allowing long TDs), you have a chance to take it away. We had some special kids make some special plays."
It began with senior linebacker Drew Minnich reading and pouncing on a Knight flare pass. The ball was bobbled by the receiver. Minnich picked it and took it 20 yards for a 22-0 NorthWood lead just 8:33 into the game.
"I saw how they brought the back into the backfield, so I knew it was going to go that way," Minnich said. "I tried to be there. He tipped it up and I just tried to make a play."
Sophomore safety Bronson Yoder added two interceptions, one in each half, for the Panthers.
"I think we've been that bend-but-don't-break defense, especially in the red zone," Minnich said. "We're getting to the point where we know we need to make a big play at certain times. It's starting to click with us more, and I think it showed up tonight."
"I gotta give credit to the coaches for putting us in position," Yoder said. "I just see a play, see what the offense is doing."
It was likewise Yoder who had a starring part in what NorthWood's own offense was doing. He scored three touchdowns, two on the ground, finished with 111 yards from scrimmage and added a pair of two-point conversions.
Brayton Yoder, no relation, churned and burned for 159 of the Panthers' 307 yards on the ground. He did it in 23 carries with one TD.
Quarterback Trey Bilinski completed 12-of-20 passes for 179 yards and two TDs.
"We played well in a lot of phases," Andrews said. "There were things that broke down at times, but we were playing a good opponent, so we knew they were going to fight back. I thought we gave a great effort."
NORTHWOOD 52, EAST NOBLE 24
Scoring By Quarters
NW — Bronson Yoder 26 run; run failed; 7:56.
NW — Bronson Yoder 2 run; Drew Minnich pass from Trey Bilinski; 3:40.
NW — Minnich 20 interception return; Brayton Yoder run; 3:27.
EN — Andrew McCormick 2 run; Dylan Hunley pass from McCormick; 10:18.
NW — Payton Bear 1 run; Bronson Yoder run; 6:41.
EN — McCormick 25 run; Hunley pass from McCormick; 5:13.
NW — Landen Gessinger 20 pass from Bilinski; Bronson Yoder run; 0:45.
EN — McCormick 1 run; Griffen Dafforn-Koebler pass from McCormick; 8:34.
NW — Brayton Yoder 21 run; Adler Chamberlin kick; 9:38.
NW — Bronson Yoder 10 pass from Bilinski; Chamberlin kick; 0:31.
NorthWood: Rushing — Brayton Yoder 23-159, Bronson Yoder 16-78, Payton Bear 14-63. Passing — Trey Bilinski 12-20-179 (1 int.). Receiving — DeAndre Smart 3-61, Landen Gessinger 5-60, Bronson Yoder 2-33, Bear 2-25. Interceptions — Bronson Yoder 2, Drew Minnich. Fumble recovery — Jake Stump.
Team: Rushing — Andrew McCormick 26-152, Kaiden Harshberger 2-15, Cade Erwin 2-9, Dylan Hunley 1-6. Passing — McCormick 10-22-137 (3 int.). Receiving — Hunley 5-106, Justin Galaviz 1-20, Harshberger 2-11. Interception — Zach Haefer.