MISHAWAKA — Conversions can be among football’s most routine plays, but Penn went “beast” mode on routine plays Friday night, and in the process extended a beastly streak that may now last into perpetuity.
Linebacker Michael Garcia blocked an extra-point kick to keep Elkhart Central from deadlocking Friday’s high school showdown at 14-all early in the fourth quarter.
Then after the Blue Blazers drew to within two points with three minutes remaining – and were forced to go for two by virtue of Garcia’s earlier block – they were denied a tie again when cornerback Nick Hardrict slowed slot back Dominick Davis on a wide-right run, and peeling defensive tackle Caleb Suski finished the stop short of the goal line.
That preserved the Kingsmen’s chilling 21-19 victory over the Blazers on a chilly, rainy evening at TCU Freed Field.
It also extended Penn’s 37-year winning streak against Central to 44 games in the final matchup before Elkhart’s two high school merge back into one next fall.
The last two contests in that streak – Friday’s and last year’s 20-17 decision – were the two closest during the string, not that the current Kingsmen cared much about the margin.
“We just knew we had to do this, win this game for our seniors,” junior running back Kyle Riffel said after rushing for 185 yards and a touchdown. “The (unfavorable elements), we couldn’t even feel that. We were having the greatest time out there just trying to get this done.”
On Senior Night, Garcia, Suski and Hardict were each among Penn’s seniors playing their final regular-season home games.
“I was determined to get that ball,” Garcia said of his block off the right side on left-footed Elijah Harris. “I was supposed to line up on the outside, but I told my (teammate) I needed to line up a little inside, and I ended up getting through and getting enough of it.”
“He’s a beast,” Riffel said of the nearby Garcia as he patted his teammate on the shoulder pads. “Suski’s a beat, Hardict’s a beast. They’re just some of the greatest guys I’ve ever played with. They made big plays.”
Those kinds of big plays helped the Kingsmen (4-4 overall, 3-1 in the Northern Indiana Conference North Division) overcome being outgained 429-278 in total yards by the Class 5A No. 7-ranked Blazers (6-2, 2-2), and overcome another monster performance by Central running back Mark Brownlee.
The senior rushed 30 times for 232 yards — his fifth outing over 200 this season — and all three Blazer touchdowns. Clearly a playmaker at heart, he also was unable to scoop up an errant pitch that morphed into a turnover 21 yards into the backfield when he opted not to fall on the ball.
Resourceful throughout, Penn registered two takeaways to none by Central, blocked a punt and committed just one penalty to help compensate for its yardage deficit.
Junior linebacker Cole McCullough’s interception and 29-yard return to the Blazer 6 set up the lone score of the first half, Riffel’s TD on the next play.
Senior corner Patrick Maclin added both the punt block and the fumble recovery in the opening half, but Central’s defense stiffened after each.
“Every snap counts,” winning coach Cory Yeoman said. “Plays like (blocks and takeaways) can make the difference. We spend a lot of time on special teams. We talked about it before taking the field, that taking care of the ball would probably be a big factor, taking the ball away would be a big factor, and special teams against a great team like this would be a big factor.”
The Blazers talked, too, but it didn’t translate.
“I said the key to the game was going to be special teams, said it to everybody,” Central coach Josh Shattuck offered, “but it’s one thing to say it, know it, work on it, but it’s hard against a team like this that is so good in special teams, so good with field position. They just didn’t make any mistakes and we did.”
The Kingsmen upped their blocked kick/punt tally on the season to eight with Friday’s pair.
Their offense, meanwhile, answered the Blazers’ game-tying TD drive in the third quarter with one of their own, capped by junior quarterback Nick Favilla scoring from 14 yards out on his way to a 17-keeper, 79-yard performance.
After Central closed to 14-13 in the fourth quarter, Penn responded again, keyed by Riffel’s 73-yard dash as part of his 143-yard second half. Favilla finished the touchdown drive from a yard out.
Central, after getting blanked in the first half, scored TDs on all three of its possessions during an unflinching second half that netted 252 yards for its offense.
Blazer senior quarterback Isaiah Chandler completed 7-of-7 passes after the break and went 15-of-20 in the game for 191 yards.
Brownlee gained 128 yards over the final two periods with scoring runs of 50, 5 and 2 yards.
“As big and strong and fast as he is,” Yeoman gushed, “just watching his patience and setting up his blocks and seeing the crease, and then being able to go from where it looks like he’s cruising to bang, that explosion … he’s a special one.”
After Brownlee didn’t get the ball on the two-point conversion try late, his coach figured some second-guessing would accompany the decision.
“I deserve to be second-guessed because it didn’t work,” Shattuck said, “but it’s one of those things where everyone thinks Brownlee’s going to get it and you run a counter off it, and that counter is a Dom Davis in space play, and when Dom Davis gets in space, we usually gain, but (Penn) made a good play and that’s why they are who they are.”
“You know what, 25 ain’t bad,” Yeoman said of Central opting for Davis, who picked up 85 yards over his other 10 touches on the night. “Jiminy Cricket, I don’t think I could catch that kid in a dang phone booth.”
The Blazers wrap up their regular season next Friday by hosting 4A No. 1-ranked New Prairie (8-0, 4-0).
“Our goals were city, conference, sectional, and now it’s determined that it will not be us winning conference,” Shattuck said, “but we’ve got the sectional to play for, and we’ve got a big-time opponent to help us get ready for that.”
The Kingsmen close their regular season by visiting Mishawaka (6-2, 3-1). It will be the last battle between the neighboring rivals for at least four years due to contractual obligations associated with the Cavemen moving to the Northern Lakes Conference next fall.
The winner can still tie New Prairie for the NIC North crown if the Blazers can beat the Cougars.
PENN 21, ELKHART CENTRAL 19
Scoring By Quarters
P — Kyle Riffel 6 run; Tommy Castline kick; 1:18.
C — Mark Brownlee 50 run; Elijah Harris kick; 5:12.
P — Nick Favilla 14 run; Castline kick; 0:28.
C — Brownlee 5 run; kick blocked; 8:39.
P — Nick Favilla 1 run; Castline kick; 7:11.
C — Brownlee 2 run; run failed; 3:00.
Central: Rushing — Mark Brownlee 30-232, Dominic Davis 3-27. Passing — Isaiah Chandler 15-20-191 (1 int.). Receiving — Vinny Ambrose 3-82, Davis 7-58, Roderick Ballard 3-33, Drew Stimac 1-11, Jacob Holt 1-7.
Penn: Rushing — Kyle Riffel 26-185, Nick Favilla 17-79, Tiegan Bothun 1-13. Passing — Riffel 0-1-0. Interception — Cole McCullough. Fumble recovery — Patrick Maclin. Blocked punt — Maclin. Blocked conversion — Michael Garcia.