Heading into his team’s first game since losing senior running back Michael Plummer to a scary head injury last week at Peru, Northwestern football coach John Hendryx knew replacing Plummer’s leadership would be impossible.
But, one thing the Purple Tigers possess is depth, so in Monday’s initial team meeting ahead of Friday’s regular season finale with Eastern, Hendryx went to the chalk board and wrote “130” big enough for everyone to see. That was the amount of yardage, give or take, Pummer had accounted for per game in the squad’s first eight contests. Hendryx challenged his team to pick up the slack and make up for the production by committee.
Plummer’s senior teammates picked up the slack. Curtis Townsend, Keegan Fessenden and Tanner Wildrick combined to run for 349 yards and six touchdowns in Northwestern’s 48-20 win over the Comets on senior night, a game in which the Tigers built a 41-0 lead by the middle of the third quarter.
That wasn’t the only good news for the team. Plummer was released from the hospital early Friday, and will begin rehabilitation at a local facility.
”It was a difficult week, but it wasn’t really difficult football-wise,” Hendryx said. “Football was pretty secondary all week. It was all just about Michael getting better, and we thank God he did get a little bit better every day. From a football standpoint, we just did what we do and didn’t change anything. I have to give the kids credit. I told the seniors they’re a bunch that have had to go through stuff that normal 17-, 18-year-olds have not. They lost a teammate [Kalin Storie to a car accident in the spring], then have what happened last Friday. These guys went from being little boys to being grown men last spring, and I just commend them for getting through all of that.”
Townsend led the charge, running for 174 yards and two TDs on 17 carries. He scampered for 136 and both TDs in the first half, with his second scoring run coming on a 52-yarder to put Northwestern (6-3, 4-3 MIC) up 28-0 with 6:17 to play in the first half.
”We wanted to carry on what Michael does and follow in his footsteps,” Townsend said. “For the seniors, trying to make up for his leadership is tough because he’s one of the most influential people on this team and overall a very good player. We look up to him, and getting through him going to the hospital — it got pretty tough. But, we got through it, and to do it the way we did, it means everything to us. Everything I did [Friday] night was for Plummer. I kept that in the back of my mind every play.”
Fessenden and Wildrick shined, as well. Fessenden ran for 93 yards and three TDs on just seven carries, while Wildrick added 82 yards and a TD on seven carries. Fessenden put the Tigers on the board early with a 65-yard run to paydirt with 5:18 to play in the first quarter. Wildrick’s TD came with 6:36 to play when Eastern had pulled with 41-20 with a passing attack that came to life in the second half.
Northwestern finished with 447 yards rushing on 54 attempts, while hold Eastern (2-7, 1-6 MIC) to 47 yards rushing on 24 attempts.
The Comets’ first drive of the game started at their own 20 before stalling out at the Northwestern 11-yard line with 7:12 to play in the opening quarter. The Tigers rattled off 41 straight points before Eastern got on the board with 4:56 to play in the third on a 43-yard pass from Austin Bates to Will Porter.
Bates finished the night 17-of-32 through the air for 306 yards and three TDs, but 232 of those yards and all three scores came in the second half.
”A big downfall of ours all year is not finishing when good things happen to us early in games,” Eastern coach Josh Edwards said. “... The rest is history. We got outplayed aggressively up front again. We’re young up there and they were very aggressive and did an outstanding job with their running game, as we knew they would. That’s a good football team, and our young kids didn’t respond to their aggressiveness and veteranship. But, I am proud of the way the kids came out and battled in the second half.”
Porter led Eastern’s receiving corps with three catches for 81 yards and two TDs. Cree Johnston added seven grabs for 76 yards, while Papee Byers hauled in two catches for 70 yards and a score. Byers was also Eastern’s leading rusher with 11 carries for 54 yards.