HURON — Sometimes the planets align, the football gods smile down and everything works just as it should.
That happened Thursday night as the Huron Tigers put an exclamation point on the regular season with a resounding 51-17 win over the Mitchell Kernels in ESD football action at Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers turned three interceptions and a blocked punt into a 31-0 halftime lead and eased home to the win that will secure them the No. 3 seed in the Class 11AA playoffs that begin Thursday. Huron will host a first-round game, its first since 2002, likely against the Yankton Bucks.
Huron took advantage of a solid performance from its offensive line on the opening drive, as the big guys opened up gaping holes for Walker Schiltz and the Tigers moved the ball down the field, capping the drive with a 32-yard field goal from Carson Duba and a 3-2 lead less than four minutes into the game. Schiltz carried for 50 yards on the drive and quarterback Cade McNeil converted on a fourth-and-seven with a 15-yard pass to Cooper Fryberger to keep the drive alive.
The teams traded possessions and Kobe Busch pinned the Kernels at their own 10-yard line and on the first play of the Mitchell drive, Fryberger stepped in front of the intended Kernel receiver and made a clean pick of Mitchell quarterback Austin Kerr and returned the ball to the five-yard line. A blocking penalty post-interception forced Huron back to the Mitchell 26. After a short run, McNeil dropped a picture-perfect pass over Busch’s shoulder for a 24-yard touchdown.
The next Mitchell possession wound up going backward via penalty yardage and a huge sack by the Tiger defensive line. Huron rushed the punter and Tyson Lien got a hand on the kick, which Busch covered at the Mitchell one-yard line. The Tigers converted quickly, as Hayden Hegg punched it in from a yard out and increased the lead to 17-0 for Huron.
The Tigers snuffed out the ensuing Kernel drive on the third play, as Busch tipped a Kerr pass and Derick Siemonsma snagged it and set Huron up at the Mitchell 27-yard line.
Huron coach Scott Spanton dug deep into the playbook at that point. With four receivers in a diamond pattern on the left side, McNeil bounced a backward pass to Busch, who gathered in the ball and hit a streaking Fryberger in stride for the touchdown.
The pace slowed for the final few minutes of the first half, as the teams traded possessions until Huron stopped Mitchell on downs with just under three minutes to play, taking over at the Tiger 42.
McNeil completed passes of 21, 14 and 13 yards on the drive, the first the old-fashioned hook and ladder with Busch and Landon Hegg. McNeil capped the drive with 28 seconds in the half, on a two-yard dive and the Tigers trotted to the locker room with a comfortable cushion.
Mitchell took the second half kickoff and Huron immediately forced a turnover on downs, as the Tigers stopped the Kernels twice with than a yard to get a first down. Lien led the charge on the defensive stand, and was rewarded on the Huron possession, as McNeil handed off, the offensive line cleared a hole and Lien ran over the only Kernel defender standing in his way for a 37-yard touchdown run.
The Kernels avoided the shutout, as Kerr and running back Parker Phillips moved the ball down the field on the ground. Huron’s defense stiffened, but Mitchell kicker Trevor Lambert just nudged a 42-yard field goal over the crossbar to make the score 37-3.
Jayden Beck got Huron on the attack on the next possession, as he broke through on a 42-yard run that flipped the field for the Tigers. Moments later, Landon Hegg capped the drive with a two-yard run and Huron led 44-3 with three minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Kernels managed to string together a substantial drive, as they moved the length of the field, benefitting from a couple of Huron penalties and a fourth-down conversion, as Kerr found Ryley Johansen from nine-yards out and a Lambert kick made it 44-10.
Huron recovered the ensuing onside kick and began the task of running out the clock. The Tigers got two first downs, but a fumbled snap forced them into a third-and-12, when McNeil lobbed a short swing pass to Beck, who dodged a Kernel cornerback and hit the jets down the left side for a 32-yard touchdown that made the score 51-10. Kernel backup quarterback Tucker Vilhauer engineered a drive that moved quickly down the field against the second-team defense and capped the drive with a 14-yard run, and this time after the Tigers recovered the onside kick Huron was able to run out the clock.
Huron rolled up 244 yards on the ground, led by Beck’s 87 yards on only four carries, while Lien churned up 59 yards on five carries and Schiltz ended with seven carries and 51 yards. McNeil was 5-10 through the air for 79 yards and two scores.
Score by quarters
Mitchell 0 0 3 14 — 17
Huron 10 21 13 7 — 51
H — 8:03 - Carson Duba, 32-yard field goal.
H — 3:07 - Kobe Busch, 24-yard pass from Cade McNeil. Duba kick.
H — 10:20 - Hayden Hegg, 1-yard run. Duba kick.
H — 8:59 - Cooper Fryberger, 27-yard pass from Busch. Duba kick.
H — :28 - McNeil, 2-yard run. Duba kick
H — 9:50 - Tyson Lien, 37-yard run. Kick blocked.
M — 5:56 - Trevor Lambert, 42-yard field goal.
H — 2:58 - Landon Hegg, 2-yard run. Spencer Hershman kick.
M — 7:58 - Ryley Johansen, 8-yard pass from Austin Kerr. Lambert kick
H — 4:48 - Jayden Beck, 32-yard pass from McNeil. Hershman kick
M — 3:28 - Tucker Vilhauer, 14-yard run. Lambert kick