POPLAR GROVE — The two prolific passing attacks of the Big Northern Conference went toe-to-toe in the spring season finale, both posting big numbers in the air and both answering big plays with one of their own.
Both teams even put together late-in-the-half scoring drives, Dixon in the first half to tie the score, North Boone in the second half to pull out the 40-33 win over the Dukes.
Dixon quarterback Jacob Gaither completed 27-of-44 passes for 291 yards and four touchdowns in addition to scoring on a quarterback keeper.
North Boone’s Logan Emanuel completed 20-of-26 passes for 313 yards and five touchdowns. The biggest came with 11 seconds to play, a 4-yard strike while rolling out of the pocket for the winning score.
“The pocket just kind of collapsed,” he said. “I was rolling right, thought about running it, but I saw my receiver flash at the last second so I ended up throwing it and he made the play.”
That touchdown to Isaac Urtiz capped off a seven-play drive that had been set up in great field position thanks to a 55-yard kick return by Adrien Raabe. North Boone was able to burn away most of the final 2:20 of the game with the drive, leaving the Dukes with only enough time for a last-gasp effort, with Emanuel sacking Gaither on the final play of the game.
For a lot of the Vikings’ big plays earlier in the game, Emanuel was able to get the ball into the hands of Will Doetch, who recorded 179 receiving yards.
Gaither had plenty of options in the passing game. Jacob Gusse made 11 catches for 114 yards, Hunter Gehrt had four catches for 59 yards, and Cal Kyker had 10 catches for 107 yards.
“They were running their routes full speed, getting the defense off-guard, they didn’t know what we were doing,” Gaither said. “Gusse and Cal and Gehrt were getting wide open and then the line was giving me enough time to get it there too.”
North Boone’s first two drives saw big plays in the passing game, as Emanuel hit Doetch for a 61-yard score and a 77-yard score. Just over three minutes into the game, the Vikings led 13-0 and Emanuel had 145 passing yards.
“He’s just a freak athlete, can make any play, catch any ball you throw to him,” Emanuel said. “He’s just an amazing player.”
Emanuel added a 51-yard touchdown pass to James Linn on North Boone’s fourth drive.
But the next two Viking drives saw the Dukes sniff out screen passes and drop them for losses, and the Dixon defensive line get pressure on Emanuel, as Gehrt and Quinn Staples both sacked him.
Meanwhile Dixon began to move the ball on offense. After the Dukes went three-and-out on their first drive and turned it over on downs on the second, Dixon got on the board with a two-play drive when Gaither scrambled for 31 yards on one play and hit Gehrt for a 14-yard touchdown on the next.
“We were running the ball and were OK with it, but it wasn’t getting us where we needed to be,” Gaither said. “So we started getting the passing game, and they couldn’t stop it, so we just kept to that. Gusse was on fire the whole game.”
Dixon also capped off a 79-yard drive with a touchdown pass from Gaither to Kyker, then dialed up a two-minute drill to tie the score 20-20 at halftime.
Taking over at their own seven with 2:20 left in the second quarter, the Dukes went the length of the field in 15 plays. Gaither hit a couple of quick passes to Gusse and picked up a first down scrambling to get the ball out of the shadow of the Dixon end zone.
A 17-yard completion to Gehrt moved the ball over midfield. Gaither was sacked on the next play, but a penalty for a horse-collar tackle gave Dixon an additional 15 yards with 40.8 seconds until the half. Another pass to Kyker moved the ball to the Vikings’ 17, and Gaither took a few shots to the end zone, Kyker nearly reeling in one with a one-handed catch, but his foot landed just barely on the sideline and the pass was incomplete.
Gaither eventually cashed in with a touchdown pass to Gusse with 14 seconds to go in the half.
“We were just throwing out-routes,” Gaither said. “Gusse had them, Cal had them, and then Gehrt had a good one too, just out-routes, get the ball and get out of bounds.”
Dixon took a 27-20 lead when Gaither found Gehrt on a wheel route for a 20-yard score on the opening drive of the third quarter.
North Boone answered, getting a 36-yard touchdown run from Chris Doetch on the next drive to tie the score.
North Boone jumped back in front with 9:59 to go in the game when Emanuel found Linn for a touchdown to convert a fourth-and-goal from the 12.
But back came the Dukes with a 10-play 77-yard drive capped off by Gaither scoring on a quarterback keeper with 2:57 to go in the game to tie the score at 33-33.
Dixon finishes the season 1-3 with all four games decided by a single score. The Dukes lost each of the first two games by five points before a touchdown pass from Gaither to Gehrt with 21 seconds left in their Week 5 game lifted the Dukes to a 20-19 win over Stillman Valley.
“We had freshmen, sophomores and juniors on the field for the majority of this year, and played in close games,” Dixon coach Jared Shaner said. “That’s going to come back to help us in the future.”