CULVER — For all the impressive numbers Bremen’s offense has generated this season, it was the Lions’ defense that made the difference Friday.
The Bremen defensive unit held on two key goal line stands in the first and second quarters, and a scoreless first half came back to haunt the Cavaliers as Lions quarterback Nate Leeper connected with receiver Ben Hueni for a 37-yard go-ahead touchdown strike with just over a minute on the game clock to give the Green Machine a 20-13 homecoming spoiler on the road at Culver.
“Our defense played great tonight, and we needed it to play great,” said Bremen Head Football Coach Bob Holmes. “That’s the type of defense we’ve got to play if we’re going to win big games. Our kids did a great job of buckling down, sticking with the game plan and executing all the way through, but the defense won the game for us tonight without a doubt.”
The Lions remain unbeaten with the hard-fought victory, moving to 5-0 on the season and 3-0 in the Northern State Conference.
“(Culver coach) Andy Thomas does an outstanding job out here at Culver,” Holmes said. “That was a dogfight, and it ended up being like I talked about in the preview: The team that made the least mistakes and executed at the end was going to win a close ball game.
“This is a tough conference and every week is championship week, that’s the way we look at it. We got out of here this week with a ‘W’, and I’m awful proud of these kids. It’s nice to see them reveal their character.”
Culver (3-2, 2-1 NSC) had a chance to go up early when Cole Flora returned the opening kick-off 81 yards to put the Cavs on the Bremen 12-yard line. Two plays later, however, Sean Knepper intercepted a Collin Stevens pass intended for star receiver Micah Budzinski just outside the end zone, the first of three picks by the Lions secondary at the game.
Bremen (5-0, 3-0 NSC) went up 7-0 on a Braxston Miller 2-yard scamper into the end zone and Lucas Schlarb point-after kick at the 10:18 mark of the second frame, and Culver had a chance to tie the game up on the last possession of the first half, but the Lions held on a first-and-goal situation at their own 8 to take a lead into the break.
“You can’t leave 10 points on the field against a team like that,” said Thomas. “It’s going to come back and get you, and it did. It’s tough to take. I’m proud of our guys; this is one of the top 2A teams in the state, and we were right there with them. They just fought and fought… and I wouldn’t expect anything different from this group.”
Bremen seized the early momentum in the second half with a quick seven-play, 74-yard scoring drive set up by a 39-yard breakaway run from Tyler Johnston and a 21-yarder from Miller and touched off by a Leeper pitch and Eric Knepper 2-yard run into the EZ to give the visitors a 13-0 advantage when the kick sailed wide.
It looked like the Lions would run away with the game as they did in the third quarter of their game with Triton last week when they recovered the ensuing onside kick and steadily marched to the Culver 12, but Bradley Beaver came down with a big interception in the Culver end zone and returned it 55 yards to set up the Cavs’ first scoring drive of the night, a six-play, 45-yarder that ended with a 3-yard touchdown reception by Budzinski. Culver was called back five yards for a false start on the point-after attempt, though, and the kick was blocked to leave the home team facing a 13-6 deficit.
But the Cavaliers defense pilfered the second of three Bremen fumbles at the game, and 10 plays and 54 yards later, Stevens ran a 1-yard keeper into the Lions end zone to knot the game at 13-all with his own point-after kick at the 9:51 stop of the fourth quarter.
Culver forced another fumble for a turnover on Bremen’s next drive, but the Cavaliers went three and out and Bremen scored the game-winner on an eight-play, 65-yard drive culminating in Leeper’s perfect TD spiral to Hueni in close coverage with 1:08 to go.
The Cavs were forced to pass with time running out, and Bremen linebacker Mitch Andrews intercepted a pass intended for Budzinski with just 8 seconds on the clock to seal the deal.
Bremen overcame some adversity in Friday’s win as leading rusher Eric Knepper — who racked up a game-high 116 yards on 11 carries at Culver — was sidelined with an injury following his second-half-opening kick-off return. The Cavs’ sturdy defense held Miller to just 78 yards on 15 rushes, and Tyler Johnston chewed up 54 rushing yards in eight rushes filling in for Eric Knepper.
“(Knepper) got dinged on the kick-off return a little bit, so we just put in our number two fullback,” said Holmes. “He’s our second fullback, he came in and did a great job carrying the load in there. Teams are keying in on Braxston so we need to be a little bit versatile in there, and T.J. coming in in the fourth quarter did a great job with Knepper a little dinged up.”
Culver was led in rushing by senior running back Kevin Hogan, who finished with 79 yards on 19 touches following a break-out week at New Prairie last week in which he rushed for 212 yards and four touchdowns.
“He plays hard. I said it last week — he’s a dynamic football player,” said Thomas. “He needs to take care of some things going the wrong way a couple times, but I never worry about him playing hard and making plays. He’s a dynamic football player, and I always expect big things from him.”
Friday’s homecoming heartbreaker represented the second loss of the year for Culver following a season-opening defeat to West Central, and both defeats have come by seven points or less.
“This is two times we’ve lost this year, and both times we’ve just had our guts torn out,” said Thomas. “Our guys are just crushed, and that’s the way it should be after a loss.”
• BREMEN 20, CULVER 13
Score by quarters
Bremen: 0 7 6 7 — 20
Culver: 0 0 6 7 — 13
Bremen — Braxston Miller 2-yd run (Lucas Schlarb kick) 10:18
Bremen — Eric Knepper 2-yd run (kick fail) 8:31
Culver — Micah Budzinski 3-yd pass from Collin Stevens (kick blocked) 5:01
Culver — Stevens 1-yd run (Stevens kick) 9:51
Bremen — Ben Hueni 37-yd pass from Nate Leeper 1:08
Rushing: 45-330; Knepper 11-116, Miller 15-78, Tyler Johnston 8-54
Passing: Leeper 3-14-1 for 96 yds, 1 TD
Receiving: Mitch Huppert 2-59, Hueni 1-37, 1 TD
First downs: 18
Penalties-yds lost: 2-10
Rushing: 36-140; Kevin Hogan 19-79
Passing: Stevens 9-19-2 for 88 yds, 1 TD; Sam Hissong 0-1-1 for 0 yds
Receiving: Micah Budzinski 5-55, Trent Elliott 3-18
First downs: 11
Penalties-yds lost: 3-30
Records: Bremen 5-0 (3-0 NSC), Culver 3-2 (2-1 NSC)