LAKE LINDEN — Hurley’s terrible stretch to end the first half was matched only by how well it responded in Saturday’s 30-20 victory over Lake Linden-Hubbell.
It was tied 14-14 at halftime after the Midgets committed three special teams turnovers in the final minutes of the first half.
But the Midgets bounced back, stopping Lake Linden three-and-out to start the second half and then scoring four plays later, on a 61-yard touchdown run by Roman Lupino. Early in the fourth quarter, the Midgets took a 30-14 lead – pretty insurmountable for a deliberate Lakes‘ offense – two plays after Hurley punter Zach Ofstad snagged a high snap inside the Hurley 20, and after he kicked it,Lake Linden was called for a roughing- the-punter penalty, keeping the Midgets’ drive alive.
The hard-fought victory came in the first of three tough Great Western Conference games – and the only one of them on the road; Crystal Falls Forest Park comes to Hurley Friday and the Gogebic Miners play Hurley on Sept. 27.
Hurley senior fullback Mark Saari had a career game Saturday, scoring three touchdowns while rushing for a game-high 148 yards in his first season in the feature fullback spot.
The Midgets could have lost this game late in the first half.
“I’m proud of the way we rallied and we learned something about our ball club today, about their insides and their guts and that made us feel good,” Hurley coach Scott Erickson said.
Hurley took a 14-6 lead with 7:34 left in the second quarter on a four-yard touchdown run Saari.
Then the special teams play began to give the Lakes the edge.
Lake Linden was forced to the game’s first punt after Hurley took the lead, but the Midgets muffed the return and Lake Linden recovered at the Hurley 35, basically advancing the ball 34 yards.
Hurley got out of trouble on a Roman Lupino interception as Jordan Kolpin and Chris Edyvean chased Lake Linden quarterback Mitchel Kumpula with 3:05 left in the half.
Lake Linden returned the favor, forcing Hurley to punt from its own 28. The snap went over the head of punter Zach Ofstad and the Lakes’ Lucas Klein recovered it once it bounced back to the end zone. The two-point run failed and the game was tied 14-14 with 27.5 seconds on the clock.
“It’s just something they never do,” Lake Linden coach Andy Crouch said of punting. “It’s just something, in that situation, it was worth making them do. Obviously, it paid off for us. Ninety-nine other times it probably wouldn’t. It gave us a boost, no doubt.”
Instead of getting a quick opportunity before the half, Hurley had to play defense because Lake Linden recovered the kickoff that bounced hard off a Hurley player.
The defense held on four plays before the half to maintain the tie.
Despite the nightmarish end to the half, Hurley went right to work in the second half.
The Midgets allowed just two yards on the Lakes’ first possession of the half. And Hurley didn’t need a long drive to score when it got the ball.
On the fourth play of the drive, Lupino broke free for a 61-yard touchdown 4:16 into the second half. James Sukanen hit Jared Wendt for the conversion and the 22-14 lead.
“That was an unbelievable scenario at the end of the first half,” Erickson said. “I think that is a big sign for our team, that we can step up and make a stand and not let them in and give it right back to them and not let them in.”
Saari was happy his team went through it, after the Midgets started with two lopsided wins.
“We haven’t faced any adversity yet or had any hard times,” he said. “So it was good to have that. We just tried to stay focused, get pumped up. It came out good.”
Down 22-14, the Lakes succeeded on a fake punt, but a 10-play drive stalled after that. On first down, Kumpula was sacked as Kolpin broke free and leveled him for an 11-yard loss back to midfield.
Hurley’s next drive appeared head to the same fate when Sukanen was sacked and Hurley was punting from its own 18. The snap went high, but Ofstad reached for it and punted before being hit by Josh Poisson. Lake Linden was called for roughing the punter and Hurley got the ball back.
Erickson said Ofstad did a good job getting to that snap.
“But you work on it all the time,” Erickson said. “That’s why coaches make people punt from their own end zone because everybody gets a little nervous offensively down there.”
That was it for the Lakes, who went from getting the ball back down by a possession in the fourth quarter to down 16 points. Hurley ended up outrushing the Lakes 273-103 and 66 of the Midgets’ yards came on the drive after the roughing the punter penalty.
“Certainly that was a big play for us to get our offense back on the field and run a little clock off,” Erickson said.
Two plays later, Saari ran for his third touchdown of the day, a 56-yard run with 10:46 left. Lupino ran in for the conversion for a 30-14 lead.
The Lakes took 6:54 off the clock to score and Hurley stopped the run on the conversion try to keep the lead at two possessions, 30-20, with 3:52 to go. Hurley ran out the clock from there.
“We were playing not to allow a quick score on that last series,” Erickson said. “If they scored, they scored, but we wanted to make sure they jumped some clock off and play the two-point conversion solid and we did that.”
The Lakes never solved Saari, who took the fullback spot from graduate Jarret Rhenlund, Hurley’s career rushing leader. Saari scored both of Hurley’s first-half touchdowns, both capping long drives.
Saari gave credit to the offensive line, other backs Lupino and Mitchell Maki for blocking for him, and Erickson for calling the right plays against the Lakes’ defense.
“The last couple years I’ve always been watching Jarret, see how it’s done, where you need to be,” Saari said. “Good to finally step in there and have to do the job. It’s gone pretty good so far and I hope it does the rest of the season.”
Crouch was happy his team played physically with Hurley, which he considers a very physical team.
“Hurley and Lake Linden had the exact same game plan today, to play offense and they did a better job,” Crouch said. “They do an incredible job, they’re coached so well. We couldn’t sustain drives and they could. And that’s the difference in the ballgame.”