Defense comes up big to give Firebirds the homecoming win
DEVILS LAKE - After Devils Lake punted the ball with 1:24 to go in the fourth quarter, Grand Forks Red River had an opportunity to create a damper on the packed crowd at an overcast Roller Field Saturday evening.
However, a collection of clutch tackles, combined with a handful of defensive substitutes stepping up in the absence of an injured Colton Schneider, sealed the 20-17 victory for the Firebirds on Sep. 11 in what was a start-to-finish homecoming thriller.
With the win, Devils Lake is now 2-1 to start the season for the first time since the 2019-20 campaign. The Firebirds’ 20 points scored additionally tied a season-high in a game (Devils Lake also scored 20 in their 22-20 loss to Grafton on Aug. 27).
“It was huge,” Devils Lake head coach Todd Lambrecht said after the game. “They put themselves in a really good situation with really good field position. We stepped up defensively. As the head coach and defensive coordinator, I pride myself in our defense, and our defense stepped up. Our offensive and defensive line both played really well today.”
Both teams immediately emphasized the importance of both the offensive and defensive lines early as both attempted to establish and stop the run. After the first quarter quickly breezed by after both teams halted the offensive sweeps and inside cuts, Red River drew first blood after they scooped up a Ben Heilman fumble and took it to the house for a 30-yard fumble recovery touchdown.
The senior quarterback in Heilman, however, redeemed himself almost immediately after. After Red River fumbled, Heilman, now playing linebacker, scooped up the ball and found enough space to tie the game up with 7:36 left in the second quarter. Then, after Devils Lake pressured Red River into another turnover, the quarterback in Heilman connected on a 50-yard dime to wide receiver Drew Hofstad to give the Firebirds a 14-7 lead.
“Red River was out there, and they thought they were going to roll right through us, and we showed them they are not as good as they think they are and that we were here to play,” senior offensive and defensive tackle Bridger Wayman said.
Red River, however, did not go quietly. After the Roughriders connected on a mid-range field goal, they found themselves within four points of the Firebirds.
Coming out of the second half, Devils Lake responded via a Colton Schneider reverse sweep. Once again, the Firebirds found a much-needed 20-10 cushion heading into the fourth quarter.
The Firebirds could not completely drown out the late-game drama as Schneider, who the Firebirds leaned on to establish the rushing game, went down with an injury late in the fourth quarter. Red River then found more life after they trimmed the lead to three with three minutes to go in the game.
Nevertheless, Devils Lake found the necessary life on the bench to make a slew of stops, claim the victory and prevent Red River from taking control. To Lambrecht, it was all about the next man up.
“We always preach it because you do not know when your time is going to happen, and if it does, you have to step up and play at the level that person was at,” Lambrecht said. “We have quite a few kids that are capable of that. They just do not understand it yet. They have to realize they can play at that level when they need to do it because we need that level all of the time.”
In Wayman’s mind, the defensive stops were so precise that he did not notice a change from when Schneider was on the field or off of the field.
“I feel like the subs stepped up very well, even with Colton out, and I felt like there was no difference, even with him not in there,” Wayman said.
With the win, Lambrecht believes the Firebirds now have momentum going for them as the team continues to march into region play.
“This was a big game coming in,” Lambrecht said. “Red River is a solid team, and they are going to make noise down the road. This was a big game for us at home. Team-wise, we are just getting stuff together more and more and figuring stuff out. It was huge. You play against a good solid team like Red River who does not make a lot of mistakes, and it is huge for us.”
Devils Lake will next head north to face Turtle Mountain on Sep. 17.