OSSIAN – There were a lot of things not working in Norwell’s favor on Friday night, but the Knights fought back against the cold, the absence of key players and the early speed game of visiting Columbia City.
By the time the night ended, a drizzle had started descending from the sky on the coldest night of the season and Norwell had topped the Eagles 45-34 to claim second place in a competitive Northeast 8.
“I think a lot of our success this year has been how we’ve worked out and how we worked together during our lockdown. We put in a lot of work,” Norwell quarterback Eli Riley said. “A lot of our success is due to the fact that I think we worked harder than everybody else during that time.”
It didn’t take long for the Eagles to jump out to the lead. In fact, it seemed like it was 21-0 almost before everyone got settled into their seats at Norwell’s Courtyard.
Columbia City receiver T.J. Bedwell had one of the best nights of his career before halftime. Just over two minutes into the game, Bedwell hauled in a 58-yard touchdown pass from Greg Bolt by outpacing everyone on third down.
After Columbia City forced Norwell into a three-and-out, the Eagles were pinned back on their own 4-yard-line with a punt. Then, less than three minutes after Columbia City’s first score, the Eagles took advantage of a partially second-string Norwell secondary again. This time, the speed of Bedwell burned the Knights for a 96-yard touchdown reception.
Bedwell then picked off an Riley pass on the ensuing possession.
Tack on a Bolt touchdown run and a Garrett Geiger fumble recovery and the first quarter left little doubt: Norwell was in trouble. Or were they?
“I’m really proud of the kids, they never wavered,” Norwell coach Josh Gerber said. “Down 21-0, you never saw a sense of panic, you never felt like there was a lack of belief or anything like that. We always felt like we were going to pull it out and get the win.”
The Knights began moving the ball both on the ground and through the air in the second quarter. A 37-yard connection between Riley and receiver Bo Morgan with 9:36 left in the half propelled Norwell to its first scoring drive of the game. Max Ringger finished the drive with a 10-yard touchdown run to end the first half bleeding.
The 14-point game got wild in the final 97 seconds of the first half. Norwell was held at that point to a 30-yard Austin DeLeon field goal that was then answered with a third Bedwell touchdown; which came on a 72-yard reception with 1:17 left from Bolt that looked a lot like the previous two scoring strikes.
Norwell, flexing its resilience, hit back quickly. Riley moved well out of the pocket with 23.3 seconds left, scrambling wildly away from the closing Columbia City defense before hitting Morgan for a 15-yard touchdown. The Knights trailed just 29-17 at the half.
“They are a resilient bunch. They never think they are down and out. They are going to fight, they are going to compete and they aren’t going to lose heart,” Gerber said of his team.
The injury bug hurt Columbia City big at the end of the second quarter and start of the third. Ryan Elsten, who has led the Eagles in tackles in many of the past several games was hurt on the closing score of the first half and spent the second half on crutches. After Riley scored on a 21-yard quarterback keeper with 9:28 left in the third, Columbia City lineman Riley Tucker took a big hit on a two-point conversion attempt that knocked him out of the game. On the kickoff return that followed, it was Bedwell who came up limping.
Those three injuries and Norwell’s enhanced second half aggression really turned the tide.
The Knights surged ahead for the first time in the game with 7:17 left in the third after a Ringger 3-yard score and a Riley keeper for a two-point conversion. On the next Norwell possession, Bedwell again got the Eagles back into the conversation with a fumble recovery. That defensive play helped set up two great connections between Bolt and Hunter Herron, including one where Herron rose up on the right side of the end zone with 11:06 in the game to give the Eagles the lead back.
Then came Norwell.
The Knights, who ran for 390 yards in the game, got a big run from Joel Rinkenberger to pace another scoring drive that was capped with Isaiah Brege’s 3-yard touchdown run to give Norwell the lead for good.
Columbia City (6-3) just couldn’t get anything going as Rinkenberger laid good hit after good hit on the Eagle offense. A big part of Norwell’s defensive success came in the slowing of Bedwell. While he spent most of the second half favoring his leg, Norwell switched up the coverage and put Riley on him, which slowed him and the Eagles offense down.
“That goes to coach [Matt] Taylor, our defensive coordinator,” Gerber said. “It allowed us to cover Bedwell and he’s pretty good. The adjustment really helped us, glad coach Taylor thought to do that and glad Eli was able to make it happen.”
Norwell (8-1) added a bonus score with 3:52 left on a 36-yard Riley keeper, weaving through the Columbia City defense before hitting the left sideline and streaking to the end zone. It was just one of the many examples of the night when Riley looked dead to rights but was able to make the right reads and get up the field.
“We weren’t having a lot of success throwing the ball,” said Riley. “I kind of saw some guys covered up down there and they were leaving some lanes open so I was just running around, making some plays.”
Riley led the Norwell offense with 178 yards rushing on 17 carries while also throwing for 90 yards.
“I think sometimes we don’t run him as much as we could because he’s not a real big kid,” Gerber said of Riley. “But he is a tough son of a gun and we needed him to run the ball a little bit more tonight and he did it. He answered the challenge.”
Ringger added 166 yards to the big rushing night for the Knights and Brege had 46 yards on the ground. Rinkenberger led the defense with nine tackles and a sack.
For Columbia City, it was Bolt’s 305 yards on 9-of-19 passing with four touchdowns that lead the way; five of those passes for 241 yards went to Bedwell. Bolt also ran for 56 yards and another score. Brooks Longenbaugh led the Eagle defense with 9.5 tackles.