Northeastern's offense struggled in the first half Friday, but return touchdowns from Michael Cooper and Justin Franklin helped boost the team to a 27-0 win over Spring Grove. Matt Allibone
It was one of the sloppiest halves of offensive football Northeastern had played all season.
During the first two quarters of Friday night's road game against Spring Grove, the Bobcats gained just 73 total yards, picked up four first downs and threw an interception. They completed just two passes and lost yards on several plays.
And they led by two touchdowns at halftime.
With the help of a huge defensive performance and two first-half return touchdowns, Northeastern managed to take control of the game on its way to a 27-0 win. The Bobcats (6-2, 3-2) held the Rockets (4-4, 2-3) to just 100 total yards and forced three turnovers in the shutout.
"Our defensive staff and defensive players did a great job this week with the game plan," Northeastern head coach Jon Scepanski said. "Special teams needed to make plays. The offense was struggling but guys in the other two aspects of the game did a great job executing."
After stopping the Rockets on their opening drive, the Bobcats got an early spark when Michael Cooper returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown. That would prove to be one of the few big plays in a first half highlighted by defense.
Time and time again, both offenses struggled to gain momentum. With leading rusher Ryan Daugherty out with a shoulder injury, Spring Grove gained just 71 yards in the first half and failed to take advantage of a blocked punt and an interception by Chance Jackson.
But with their defense frustrating Northeastern quarterback Shannon Valenti and keeping running back Anu Johnson bottled up, the Rockets remained down by only one score. That was until Bobcats defensive back Justin Franklin stepped in front of a Jake Messersmith pass and took it back the other way for a 60-yard touchdown in the final minute of the first half.
"Our defensive end Shamari (Young) hit the quarterback and forced a bad pass, I was in the right place at the right time," Franklin said. "All I saw was green."
The Rockets wouldn't go down easy, opening the third quarter by recovering a surprise outside kick. But their offense couldn't capitalize, and that gave Johnson a chance to heat up.
After rushing for just 11 yards in the first half, the senior running back picked up 66 yards on eight carries during Northeastern's first drive in the third quarter, finishing it off with a 10-yard touchdown. Johnson would finish with 137 yards on 25 carries as the Bobcats cruised to a win that keeps them right in the thick of the District 3 5A playoff race.
"The defense was carrying us and we felt like we needed to do our job," Johnson said. "(The first drive of the third quarter) loosened me up because I was so tight from the first half. It got everyone going."
While the Rockets never reached the end zone, Spring Grove coach Kyle Sprenkle didn't fault the players' effort in game where they were missing their top offensive player in Daugherty.
"That's a powerful and athletic offensive team and our defense rose to the challenge and we still felt good at halftime," Sprenkle said. "The injury bug has hit us and we got some young guys in who got some quality reps tonight. I was happy with their effort but you could tell it was their first game being 'the guy.'"
NE -- Michael Cooper 70 punt return (Hayden Seifert kick), 9:50.
NE -- Justin Franklin 60 interception return (Seifert kick) 0:27
NE -- Anu Johnson 10 run (kick failed), 4:49
NE -- Chris Whack 11 run (Seifert kick), 1:19
Rushing — SG, Branden Brandt 22-46, Jake Messersmith 5-1, Anthony Beddia 1-2, Eric Glass 2-3. NE, Anu Johnson 25-137, Chris Whack 3-10, Shannon Valenti 6-25, Fred Mulbah 3-22, Shamari Young 2-9, Justin Franklin 1-7, Coby Motley 1-8, Taemar Willis 1-5.
Passing — SG, Messersmith 6-17-48-3. NE, Valenti 2-9-34-2.
Receiving — SG, Brady Stein 2-31, Bradnt 2-12, Clay Baker 1-4, Devin Kroft 1-1. NE, Jonathen Butler 2-34.
Northeastern defeated Spring Grove, 27-0, on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. Jim Seip, GameTimePA.com