RENSSELAER — The score says 35-6 in Rensselaer Central’s favor Friday, but its sectional game with North Newton teetered on the edge for nearly three quarters.
It was in the second half when the Bombers’ offensive line finally asserted itself. RCHS hammered away at North Newton’s talented defense — led by senior Colin Wagner — over the game’s final 17 minutes, increasing a 13-0 lead to 28-6 at one point midway through the fourth period to survive for another week.
The Bombers (9-2) advance to play Andrean in Merrillville for the Class 2A Sectional 33 championship next Friday. The 59ers (8-3) won their sixth game in a row by blanking previously unbeaten Boone Grove, 27-0, Friday night at home.
Rensselaer gained nearly 300 rushing yards in the second half, finishing with 437 yards on 49 running plays with four touchdowns.
The Bombers were led by senior Noah Bierma, who gained 143 yards on 13 carries with a touchdown. He went over 1,000 yards on the season after his 45-yard touchdown run with 9:05 in the first quarter on his team’s first offensive possession opened the scoring.
Rensselaer scored again on its next series, with senior quarterback Eli Hickman hitting senior tight end Luke Standish on a 44-yard touchdown pass, and the Bombers appeared ready to run away with it.
“Coming in, I knew it was going to be tough, especially early,” Spartans coach Scott Rouch said. “With 22 guys, it’s hard to simulate what they’re going to be doing. It took us a while to catch up to what we going on. In the middle of the game, I thought we played pretty well with them. We had opportunities, but we didn’t do what we need to do. Then we started losing bodies. That offense takes its toll in you. They just pound on you, pound on you and pound on you and we just couldn’t hang with them.”
But the Spartans, who finish 7-3, forced a pair of three-and-outs by the Bombers and withstood a 13-play drive to their 20-yard line late in the half to keep the game at two possessions.
North Newton’s offense, meanwhile, had two chances to score in the first half, but a fumble at the 5-yard line by Wagner and a short gain on a fourth-and-four from Rensselaer’s 20-yard line stalled both drives.
It was still anybody’s game midway through the third period before Rensselaer got their third big play of the night. Facing a second-and-7 from their own 15-yard line, the Bombers got an 85-yard touchdown run from Dalton Kidd with 6:27 showing for a 19-0 lead. Hickman’s two-point run had the Bombers up 21-0.
“When we got up 13-0, I felt like our kids relaxed a little bit,” Bombers coach Chris Meeks said. “I thought they did a nice job defensively of selling out to our power side. We made an adjustment at halftime and went back to the weak side and we did a lot of nice things out of that.”
But the Spartans scored their only touchdown on their next possession. Junior quarterback Austin Goddard’s pass to senior receiver Vince Taylor covered 78 yards, pulling the Spartans within 21-6 of the lead.
Taylor leaped high for Goddard’s pass to the middle of the field, splitting a pair of Bomber defenders for the ball. He turned and raced another 40 yards for the score.
“They’re 7-2 for a reason,” Meeks said of the Spartans. “They are a very good football team. We turned it up a notch and capitalized on some things tonight. Bottom line is our defense kept them out of the end zone other than the six points. I felt like we bent a little bit tonight, but we didn’t want to break. Other than the six points, I thought our defense did a good job of keeping things in front of them.”
RCHS had an answer of its own over a minute later, with sophomore Kelton Hesson sprinting to the outside and down the sideline for a 37-yard rushing touchdown. It capped a five-play, 70-yard drive for the Bombers and gave RCHS a 28-6 lead with 4:05 showing in the third.
Meeks said his team switched to a new formation to move the ball downfield.
“We did some things we hadn’t shown all year,” he said. “We went up 21-0, they came back and made it 21-6, we called a timeout and went to a formation we haven’t shown all year and it went for a jet sweep of around 80 yards, which got us back to a three-score game.”
Rensselaer’s final score came at the 5:19 mark of the fourth period when junior Addison Wilmington raced in from nine yards out for a the game’s final score.
Wilmington, who managed 76 yards on 15 carries, is just short of 1,000 yards on the season, needing 16 yards to reach that milestone.
Kidd had three carries for 117 yards.
Wagner said his team knew what to expect with the Bombers, so it all came down to execution. RCHS beat the Spartans, 40-15, in the regular season on Aug. 30.
“We knew they were going to just pound the ball and be physical,” Wagner said. “We challenged our defensive line, linebackers and secondary because we knew what they were going to do and everybody else knew what they were going to do; run the ball and every once in a while throw a deep ball. They did it. Our secondary fell asleep a couple of times, but hats off to them. They made a lot of great plays, too. We all played hard and didn’t quit.”
North Newton had 366 yards of offense, including 233 yards on 17 of 27 passing by Goddard. He threw for a score but was also picked off twice.
Wagner, who had three games of 300 yards or more this season, had 85 rushing yards on 19 carries. It’s the first time he failed to reach 100 yards in a game this season.
A four-year starter for the Spartans, Wagner finishes the season with 1,806 yards to lead the area.
“You saw we can drive the ball,” Wagner said. “We can get yards, but when it came to the red zone, we’d just crack under pressure. We came out pretty good and stayed with them. I’m proud of our team.”
An all-state caliber player, Wagner was joined in the senior class by Vince Taylor, Trevor Kolodziej and David Scheeringa.
“Those four guys did a good job of leading this team,” Rouch said. “They came all the time and played their butts off and tried to lead by example. They won a conference championship this year, had a winning record at 7-3 … their the first class from what I could find that had a winning record all four years. That’s something they can be proud of.”