Mann, what a Knight, as Wildcats advance

Jasper's Blake Mann prepares to pass the ball during Friday's football sectional opener at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium in Jasper. Mann finished with a game-high 208 yards rushing — highlighted by a back-breaking 76-yard run — and accounted for four touchdowns, two on the ground and two through the air. Jasper defeated Northview 35-28. Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald


JASPER — It was an exciting, white-knuckle game Friday night at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium.

Jasper coach Tony Lewis will be the first to tell you it shouldn’t have been.

“Unfortunately, it was quite a game,” Lewis lamented after the Wildcats built a 35-7 lead over Northview, then held on for a 35-28 win in the first round of Class 4A sectional play. “We played three good quarters, and, unfortunately, we haven’t figured out how to salt the game away on offense and take care of the football. We haven’t figured out that it doesn’t matter what the score is, we cannot let them score on our defense.”

To be sure, everything seemed to be going Jasper’s way through the midway point of the third period. The Wildcats (6-3) scored almost at will, and the Jasper defense shutdown the Knights, snuffing out scoring opportunities that kept the anxious crowd at Joe Rohleder Field on the edge of their seats before cheering in relief when the defense put the ball back in the hands of the Wildcat offense.

“We played good defense for the first three quarters. I thought we made some huge plays in terms of getting on their onside kicks,” Lewis pointed out. “Andrew Wallace made a great play on one of their onside kicks, and Nathan Rillo got on three onside kicks, which were huge plays for us on special teams.”

Lewis then admitted with a chuckle that “coaches always think about the negative things that went on,” and then focused on the biggest positive outcome of the game: “The positives are that we scored 35 points.”

But his magnanimity was short-lived when he recalled that his Wildcats owned a 35-7 lead and were just one touchdown away from a running clock down the stretch.

“We’ve just got to clean up the last quarter and a half, and it happened last week, too. We’ve got to be mentally tougher on both sides of the ball, and when we’re putting different kids in, they’ve got to come in and make plays for us.

“The kids are frustrated, the coaches are frustrated with the final score, but the bottom line is it’s win and advance, and we get to advance, we get to hang out with each other another week and hopefully get better going into a really tough game next week,” the first-year coach said.

Jasper hosts Evansville Central at 8 p.m. Friday in the second round of the postseason. Central defeated Evansville Reitz, 41-34, to advance.

When Lewis did reflect on the positive aspects of Friday night’s game, he was quick to praise quarterback Blake Mann, who led all rushers with 208 yards — including a back-breaking 76-yard run to flip the field just before halftime — scored two touchdowns on the ground and threw for another pair of scores.

“Blake had a heckuva game running the football, obviously. I think our offensive line did a great job, played extremely well for the first three quarters. I thought Lance Dawkins ran hard. In the first three quarters, we were owning the line of scrimmage. Blake was doing a good job with option football, reading things,” Lewis said.

The Wildcats took the opening kickoff and looked as if they would find paydirt on their first possession, but an inspired defensive stand gave the Knights their first opportunity midway through the first quarter.

When Northview went three and out and shanked its ensuing punt, Jasper drove 48 yards in eight plays for a one-yard plunge by Dawkins for the game’s first touchdown. Jackson Kabrick then booted through the first of five extra points with 1:37 showing.

The Knights put together a respectable drive the second time around, but the Jasper defense rose up and stifled Northview’s aspirations. The Wildcats then went 65 yards in seven six snaps, a series that included a fake punt by Rillo, whose incomplete pass was negated by a defensive holding call that gave Jasper new life. Two plays later, Mann hooked up with Isaac Day on a 46-yard pass play for another touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 7:06 on the clock.

Northview again challenged the Wildcats’ defense, marching 73 yards to the shadow of the Jasper goal before the Knights’ futility gave the Wildcats the ball at the Jasper 12 yard line.

On the first snap of Jasper’s possession, Mann raced 76 yards to the Northview 12 yard line, setting up his own rushing score from eight yards out for a 21-0 cushion with 1:20 to go before halftime.

Jasper's Collin Cassidy runs the ball during Friday's football sectional opener at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium in Jasper. Jasper defeated Northview 35-28. Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald

On the ensuing kickoff, Korbin Allen, Northview’s leading rusher and main threat on kickoff returns, blew through Jasper defenders and had nothing between him and the Knights’ first touchdown when Kabrick reached out at the last second to stop Allen in his tracks.

“That was a big play,” Lewis said. “That’s a big tackle — he gets called for a horsecollar, which was a good call — but that was a big tackle by him, because that could have been a touchdown right there. So that was a big play for us by Jackson.”

After intermission when Allen fielded the opening kick, it was deja vu all over again for the Wildcats. The Northview junior shredded Jasper defenders before Kabrick — the last man standing between Allen and paydirt — wrapped him up at the Jasper 43.

When the Knights were again unable to put together a consistent drive, Jasper turned around and used runs of 26 and 32 yards by Mann — the last carry for a touchdown — for a 28-0 lead at the 8:49 mark.

Northview finally got on the board on its next possession when Keegan Garrison connected with Zack Brown for a 13-yard scoring play with 5:11 showing.

After Wallace snared a line-drive boot on the ensuing kickoff, it looked as if Jasper would give the ball right back to the Knights when Rillo attempted his first punt of the game. A Northview defender partially blocked the punt, but the Knights muffed the reception, surrendering the ball to the Wildcats at almost the exact spot from which the punt originated. The reprieve failed to produce any points, but after a huge fourth-down defensive stand by the Wildcats, Jasper got the ball at the Northview 30 yard line.

Mann and Dawkins combined to grind out 16 yards, before Mann found Rillo for a touchdown with 6:35 remaining for a 35-7 advantage.

“Nathan Rillo made some huge plays on special teams, and he made a big touchdown, which ended up being a huge touchdown on that rollout pass from Blake. Blake got it to Nathan, and Nathan got it in the endzone. That ended up being a key touchdown for us,” Lewis pointed out.

But that’s when Northview decided to make a game of it.

The Knights, who finished with a 6-4 record, took six plays to go 52 yards, capped by a touchdown run by Garrison for a 35-14 count with 4:34 to go.

One play later, Jasper fumbled away the ball at the Northview 45. Eleven plays later, Allen hit paydirt from 10 yards out to close the gap to 35-21 with 2:43 remaining.

After Jasper went three and out, the Knights went 89 yards — highlighted by Garrison passes of 11, 36, 11, 12 and 15 yards — in 10 plays for a three-yard Garrison score just 1:04 from the end.

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