MISHAWAKA — The stakes were simple as the Warsaw and Mishawaka football teams squared off on Friday night: win, and control your own destiny in the Northern Lakes Conference title race. The Cavemen started the game with purpose and never let up, handing the Tigers a 34-11 loss, their first of the season.
“They ran their stuff a lot better than we ran ours, and they defended our stuff a lot better than we defended theirs,” Warsaw head coach Bart Curtis said after the game.
It was a nightmare start for the Tigers, who found themselves down before they could even catch their breath. On the first play of the game, Mishawaka executed a quarterback draw with Brady Fisher.
Running behind a physical offensive line, Fisher was able to find some room on the outside, breaking loose for a 73-yard touchdown to put the home team on the board just 21 seconds into the game.
The rest of the first quarter was dominated by defense. Warsaw would eventually settle in, not allowing another first down in the game’s first 12 minutes. Unfortunately for the Tigers though, Warsaw was unable to get much going on their own offensively, resulting in the two teams playing a game of field position.
The battle would be won by the Tigers. After a great punt by Mason Smythe pinned the Cavemen back near their own end zone, followed by the Warsaw defense forced a key three-and-out, the Tigers got the ball back at the 30 yard line, already in range for Smythe. The visitors would ride Reed Zollinger, coming off a massive game last week, closer to the end zone, but eventually would have to settle for a 29-yard field goal with just a minute gone by in the second quarter.
From that moment on, the rest of the first half belonged to Mishawaka. On the team’s next possession, the Cavemen were able to burn the clock while moving the ball upfield, something the home side has done so well this season. After a drive that lasted just over six minutes, Fisher would find the end zone once again, this time on a 25-yard score to extend his team’s lead to double digits.
The Tigers would not have an answer, going three-and-out on their next possession, giving the ball right back. It didn’t take long for the Cavemen to take advantage, as Fisher connected with receiver Ethan Bryce, who did the rest. The senior broke multiple tackles in the open field, going all the way for a 59-yard touchdown. Mishawaka went for two but did not get it, making it a 20-3 game at the half, giving the Tigers quite the uphill climb.
Things did not get much better as the second half began, as Warsaw quarterback Quinton Brock threw an interception on the team’s opening drive, putting the Cavemen in prime position to extend their lead once again. A few minutes later, Mishawaka did just that, as Novell Miller punched it in from three yards out to make it a 27-3 game.
Needing a spark badly, the Tigers would get one on the ensuing kickoff, as Daylor Vilamaa returned the ball 40 yards to the Warsaw 45-yard line, giving his team some nice field position. It would be just what the doctor ordered for the visitors, as the team put together its most impressive drive to this point, methodically going 55 yards in five minutes for a touchdown scored by Zollinger. The two-yard score was the senior’s ninth of the season.
Zollinger would also punch in the two-point conversion, making it a 16-point game with just over 14 minutes left.
Warsaw junior Daylor Vilamaa picks up yardage during a kickoff return in Friday night’s game at Mishawaka. Photo by Gary Nieter.
“We fought a bit in that second half. Reed is a tough kid and even though our line didn’t do too well blocking for him, he fought hard for every yard he got,” Curtis said.
Needing a stop to stay in the game, the Tigers would get one in a big way in the final moments of the third quarter. With Mishawaka driving once again, the Warsaw defensive line was able to get a great jump at the line, blowing up Miller at the line of scrimmage and forcing a fumble. Warsaw linebacker Jette Woodward would recover, giving his offense a chance to continue chipping away at the lead.
The Tigers would put together another great drive following the turnover, with Brock, Grady Nolin and Lucas Ransbottom connecting on a big hook-and-ladder play on a fourth down to keep possession alive. However, on the drive’s second fourth down a few plays later, Zollinger was spotted about half a yard short of a first down, a questionable decision by the referee. Even more questionable was the crew’s decision to call a turnover on downs without bringing the sticks out to measure. Still, down 16 with under seven minutes left, time was quickly running out for Curtis’ team.
The visitors would get the ball back after forcing a stop with just over five minutes remaining in the game. But on the second play of the drive, the Tigers, who had taken care of the ball much better than usual to this point, coughed it up on an option play, giving the ball back to Mishawaka in the red zone and essentially putting the game on ice.
With under two minutes to go iin the game, Miller scored his second touchdown to give the game its final score.
Warsaw (5-1) plays Wawasee next week at Fisher Field for its homecoming game.
“Last year when we lost this game, we had to look ourselves in the mirror to play some good football to wrap up the season,” Curtis said. “A loss like this tests our character, we’re going to find out what kind of team we have. Is this loss going to define us? I don’t know. I think tonight was a lot more of them being great than us being poor. I don’t think tonight was who we are or what we’re capable of.”