SMITH CENTER — Thayne Benoit circled in front of his rivals sideline late in the fourth quarter Friday, high-stepping and first pumping his way back across the field to greet his teammates on the Smith Center bench. The junior quarterback’s teammate, junior running back Chase Ryan, had just sured up Norton’s first regular season loss since 2013 with his fourth touchdown rush of the night.
Ryan’s 5-yard rush on fourth and three led to pay dirt and capped a nine-play, 34-yard drive spanning more than five minutes of the fourth quarter. Benoit’s celebration from sideline to sideline signaled the joy the Redmen received in downing their longtime rival 27-14 in front of their home fans Friday.
“We played great as a team together. We won this game because we’re a family, we have such good relationships with each other and we just played hard as a team,” Benoit said. “It shows that we’re a different team than we were last year.”
“We’re here to play. We just love the game and we love each other.”
After missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2002, the Redmen victory moved them to 4-0 for the first time since ’09.
Third-year head coach Darren Sasse’s team nearly let victory slip away in the third quarter.
The Bluejays went to the locker room down 21-2 having recorded just 27 yards of offense. On the second play of the half, Norton sophomore running back Tevin Petrie — who has taken over the starting spot in the backfield with senior Gavin Lively out — took the ball 64 yards to the end zone, only for the play to be called back due to an illegal block in the back. A few plays later, Petrie again took the ball and bounced off three would-be Redmen tacklers before finishing a 30-yard rush in the end zone to pull the Bluejays within 13.
Norton got the ball back on a Smith Center fumble, only for senior running back Riley Hager to drop a pass in the end zone on fourth down. Norton recovered another fumble five plays later. Senior fullback Jordan Dole responded by taking the handoff from sophomore quarterback Jace Ruder, leaping over a Smith Center defender and taking it 20 yards to the house, making it a one-possession game late in the third quarter.
“It’s always a little bit scary when the team starts pulling back up,” Ryan said. “But I don’t think we had a doubt in our mind that we were gonna win it, pull together and pull this off.”
The next three drives resulted in a Norton punt and two interceptions from the arm of Ruder, who finished just 8-of-20 passing for 91 yards and three interceptions — two which were picked off by junior David Hileman.
“We really get in our scouting reports, really get to know what they’re doing before they get there — just knowledge of the game and knowing what they’re gonna do before they come out there is what our defense does,” Ryan said. “Pulling together and making plays is what we gotta do.”
The Smith Center defense held the Bluejays to 221 yards of offense, recorded 4.5 tackles for loss and proved to Sasse it is the real deal.
“It’s pretty good,” Sasse said. “They make a lot of plays. The front seven plays really well at times and puts pressure on the quarterback when they do try to throw and then our D-backs always seem to be right in the throwing lane. We’ve had a lot of picks.”
The Redmen offense, led by Benoit under center, ran thirty more plays than the Bluejays’ offense and recorded 314 yards. But the night belonged to Ryan, who carried the load with 34 rushes for 229 yards and four touchdowns.
“He had a big game,” Sasse said. “One of the kids there in the first half said, ‘It’s your game.’ We’ve kinda had those other backs have their games and he finally had his. This is as unselfish of a team as I’ve ever coached. They don’t care who gets it as long as the team gets it. You don’t see that all the time. I’m impressed with them.”
The Redmen (2-1A) were significantly outsized on the line of scrimmage by the 3A Bluejays but had their way with them in the first half. Smith Center went down early on a botched snap to senior punter Gavin Overmiller — which he kicked out of the back of the end zone for a safety — on the opening possession of the game. They responded on their next chance on offense with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that took 4:51, capped by a 1-yard run by Ryan.
Ruder threw his first interception of the game midway through the first quarter, which led to the Redmen taking over near midfield and finishing a 10-play drive with another 1-yard rush by Ryan. The junior decided to mix it up for the raucous homecoming crowd with a 54-yard touchdown run before halftime.
In the most crucial point of the game, with under four minutes to play and holding a seven-point lead, the Redmen faced a fourth and three from the 5-yard line. Sasse stuck with the hot hand and Ryan rushed through the Norton line and landed just past the goal line, sending Benoit into celebration mode, just as he did after each Ryan touchdown.
“(This win) shows that we’re a different team than we were last year,” Benoit said. “We’re here to play. We just love the game and we love each other.”
The 4-0 Redmen head to Republic County to get their district slate underway while Norton heads home 3-1 to face Plainville. With one of the biggest tests out of the way for Smith Center, a convincing win against a high-caliber opponent makes Benoit think Smith Center is indeed back to playoff form.
“I think we are,” Benoit said. “I think we are.”