The football was still caroming around on the sideline following an incomplete pass on the game-clinching fourth down stop when Blitz began thinking about East Noble v. Leo, Round 2.
Both residing in Sectional 19 of Class 4A, the rivals once again appear to be on a collision course to meet again in the postseason, just as they have in each of the past two seasons.
But Friday’s epic 40-32 victory for the Lions needs to be appreciated before we look ahead.
It truly was a tale of two halves in Kendallville. Leo opened the game with an emphatic point when Kaeden Miller went right up the middle for 80 yards on the second play from scrimmage to the three yard line, setting up a Jackson Barbour keeper for the score. Before all of the fans could find a seat after waiting in the long admission line, the Lions had added another score and was up 16-0 (Leo loves its two-point conversions) late in the first quarter.
While East Noble was able to get on the board in the second, it never was able to show it could consistently contain the Leo rushing attack. East Noble early on was absolutely mauled by the Lions’ hulking offensive front, with the Knights’ defensive linemen frequently finding themselves blocked into the linebackers whose responsibility it was to read the play and bring down the one of Leo’s bevy of running backs that had the ball.
With Leo up 32-12 at the break, the de facto Northeast 8 Championship (yes, even in Week 5) felt all but over.
But East Noble came out with renewed energy and a desire not to wither and die on its home field. It forced Leo into mistakes, including procedure penalties and a costly fumble in the fourth quarter when the Lions were holding on by a single score. A 20-point halftime deficit was erased when Ethan Nickles plowed into the end zone from 29 yards out to tie the game at 32 with eight minutes left in regulation.
Leo had punched. East Noble had counterpunched. Could the Lions finish with a flurry and end the bout?
“When they were putting it on us, (Coach Jared Sauder) was like, ‘Alright, we have to get going and put together a good drive,” said Miller. “Mason Sheron had a great conversion (on 4th and 8) and I was able to punch it in, but it was all the linemen, all the coaches, all the fans…everybody helped us.”
It was Miller’s 15-yard run up the middle that put Leo back ahead, with the two-point conversion making it an eight-point lead. East Noble was able to drive down the field, but after a run stuffed on 1st-and-10 at the 11, three straight incompletions, including the final one with 11 seconds remaining, ended any hope that the Knights could tie at the end of regulation.
“These past two seasons we went 1-3 against East Noble,” said Miller, who finished with 159 yards rushing. and that clinching score. “The last two years they beat us in sectionals, so being to come out here was a great win. We will see ’em again.”
And therein lies the hook. Leo is now in a commanding position to capture the NE8 title with Friday’s win, but chances are this was merely the undercard to the main event. A season ago, the Lions dominated East Noble in the regular season in a 24-point shutout, only to be shutout themselves in the sectional championship game.
So while Friday was exciting and lived up to the hype, both of these teams have higher aspirations than a conference championship. The opportunity for a deep postseason run is there for East Noble and Leo, provided they can knock off the other come the fall.
As Leo celebrated its win in postgame, the murmurings on both sides of the field were already talking about Round 2, with one fan base talking about revenge and the other already concerned about what an elimination game rematch could bring.
But in the end, we were treated to a great game between a pair of phenomenal football programs. And to many, Leo vs. East Noble: The Sequel won’t possibly end up being much better than Friday.
But much like Blitz was with his pick (East Noble by 1? Oops), the hope is those folks will be wrong.
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