ST. PAUL – St. Paul took control late to earn itself a signature win on Friday.
The Class C-2 No. 2-rated Wildcats scored on their last three full possessions to top No. 6 Norfolk Catholic 27-6.
The Knights – owners of 10 state titles and seven runner-up trophies – entered the contest 0-2. But those losses were to Class C-1 No. 2 Pierce and C-2 No. 3 Aquinas. Friday’s meeting with St. Paul and next week’s battle against No .1 BRLD continues as brutal of a start to a season as can be imagined.
That’s why the Wildcats (3-0) considered this a major early-season victory.
“They’re a traditional powerhouse,” running back/linebacker Eli Larson said. “They were 0-2 against two really good teams and now they have BRLD in their fourth game, which will be really tough for them. But you never know.”
And Norfolk Catholic was in the hunt for its first victory until St. Paul took over in the final 14 minutes.
Leading 7-6, the Wildcats began winning the battle for field position and drove 52 yards in four plays. Larson, who had 189 yards on 24 carries, went in from 6 yards out with 54 seconds left in the third quarter to give St. Paul a 14-3 advantage.
Rylan Kirkby picked off a pass from Cayden Cunningham to give the Wildcats a short field. They went 21 yards in four plays, with quarterback Brennan Knapp running up the middle for a 9-yard score with 10:12 remaining.
Knapp had also recorded an interception in the third quarter, when the Wildcats picked off two passes in a span of three throws by Cunningham.
“We played timid the first half,” St. Paul coach Rusty Fuller said. “Our (defensive backs) kind of gave too big a cushion. We told them, ‘Hey, take a gamble. You know where they’re going with the ball.’
“They’ve got two great receivers, and I think we played a little scared. In the second half we tightened up our coverage and started recognizing the route combinations. Once we got comfortable with that, Brenden and Rylan made some plays for us.”
Larson credited the defensive backs for the Wildcats being able to keep Norfolk Catholic out of the end zone.
“It was our secondary tonight,” he said. “They are a traditional running team, but they can pass the ball. They can pass the ball really well. We knew if our secondary could step up and stop the pass, we’d be golden.”
St. Paul secured the win by eating 4:03 off the clock on its next possession before scoring on a 13-yard pass from Knapp to Tommy Wroblewski.
Knapp was 6-for-10 for 138 yards and Wroblewski had three catches for 88 yards as the Wildcats opened up their passing game for the first time this season.
“We got a lot of people involved,” Fuller said. “Being able to open up our passing game with Tommy Wroblewski out on the edge is just a nightmare matchup for people. I think being able to have that as a weapon, teams are going to have to start adjusting.
“We hope that’ll get people out of the box and really open up our run game.”
Norfolk Catholic coach Jeff Bellar said the Wildcats were able to tire his team out.
“I think the biggest factor was they have a very good football team and have a very good I-back who runs hard behind a big offensive line,” he said. “As the game went on, they wore us down a little bit.”
That was also Fuller’s assessment.
“I’m just so proud of the guys stepping up to the occasion in the second half,” he said. “We really wore them down and the offensive line took control there. Then Eli Larson ran the ball hard.”
St. Paul also had a strong start. It took the opening possession 80 yards in just six plays. Wroblewski had a catch for 41 yards and Larson’s two carries went for 22 and 23 yards, the second resulting in a touchdown.
“We always like to take the ball and we always like to put it in,” Fuller said. “We like to script our first eight plays, and we really didn’t have to go off-script, which was nice.”
The Wildcats came up empty on their next four possessions. One lost fumble and some untimely penalties killed off drives.
The Knights got field goals of 44 and 41 yards from Riley Carlson to pull within 7-6 at halftime. But they never could finish a drive in the end zone.
Cunningham was 8-for-16 for 85 yards with the two interceptions. He took over full time at quarterback after Nate Brungardt was shaken up on a carry late in the first quarter.
Bellar said Cunningham was just a little late on a couple of his throws, and that led to the turnovers.
“A disappointing thing from our standpoint was we had some opportunities and didn’t execute on those opportunities,” he said. “When we got the game to 7-6 and we’re driving and then we hurt ourselves on a couple of plays…I don’t want to say we stopped ourselves because that’s not fair to the defense, but it looked like we had something going.
“That’s kind of been our track record this year. We’ve played three real good football teams, but at times we haven’t been consistent enough to finish with a play.”