By MIKE BLATT
---- — Kokomo’s football team found itself in unfamiliar territory heading into its third game of the 2013 season Friday night at Walter Cross Field.
For the first time in Brett Colby’s seven-year tenure as coach, the Wildkats were 0-3 overall and 0-1 in the North Central Conference. Add to that a season-ending injury to senior quarterback Tayler Persons, a tough opponent in Huntington North, and a plethora of concerns after a fumble-plagued loss to Muncie Central a week ago, and even the most stalwart Kokomo supporters were having doubts.
But the Wildkats responded with a solid performance against the Vikings to grab a hard-fought, 14-7 victory that was in doubt until the end.
“We pushed our kids this week with toughness drills after practice,” said Colby. “It was the hottest it’s been all summer. ... And it paid off. I told the kids that mental toughness got you through this game, and to be a good team, you’ve got to win a big game.”
A pair of juniors helped Kokomo right the ship. Running back Bo Baker had a career night with 197 yards on 35 rushes, and Jordan Rawlins, in his first career start at quarterback, handled the offense with poise and scored the winning touchdown. Most importantly, the Kats had just one turnover on the night while collecting three North miscues.
“We won the turnover battle for the first time this year, and we won the game. Maybe there’s a correlation there,” Colby quipped.
The Vikings (1-3, 1-1), who were averaging 282 passing yards per game, were stymied for a half by a Kokomo rushing game that ate up clock and a defense that refused to let Viking QB Keenan Leichty get the air attack off the ground. Although the Kats led just 6-0 at intermission, they had more than doubled the Vikings in time of possession and limited Leichty to just four completions on 17 attempts for 37 yards.
Kokomo’s touchdown came on Baker’s 41-yard run on a draw play with 2:31 remaining in the half.
Early in the third period, Kokomo got a break when Leichty’s punt struck his own blocker and was recovered by sophomore Marcelle Kenner at the HN 21.
Four rushes by Baker made it third-and-goal at the one, and Rawlins scored on a sneak. Baker’s two-point conversion run made it 14-0 at the 8:30 mark.
But the Vikings didn’t quit. HN struck paydirt on a 77-yard bomb from Leichty to Kole Hale to close the gap to 14-7 with just 44 seconds left in the third.
The Kats had a chance to put the game away midway through the fourth when Markell Freeman recovered a Viking fumble at the HN 19. But the Vikings held on a fourth-and-goal at the two and took over for one last chance with 2:54 left.
Suddenly, Leichty got hot, completing passes of 15, 20, 5, and 30 yards for a first down at the Wildkat 26. But an incompletion and a sack by Kenner followed, and on third and 17 at the 33, Kokomo cornerback Cuba Evans iced the game with an interception at the 25.
After the game, Rawlins spoke about his first start and the running of Baker.
“You know, I had a lot of pressure at the beginning,” he said, “but as the game went on I got more comfortable. I felt good about it.
“[Bo] ran the ball hard. I love the way he runs. I know he was tired, but he fought through it and ran hard.”
Senior Fletcher Miller led the Wildkat defense with four solo tackles, seven assists, and several tipped passes.